Dad Died

When I was little, Dad would get into the car and say, “Let’s get lost.”

“OK,” I’d shout. “Let’s get lost.”

At each intersection he’d ask, “Which way?” until we didn’t know where we were anymore.

“Look,” I’d tell Mom when we banged into the breakfast room later. “Dad bought me a diary with a lock and key,” or “We threw stones in a river from the bridge.”

*     *     *

“Dad died,” my sister said over the phone, crying. “Dad just died.”

I walked out to tell the guests at our picnic table. “My dad just died,” I said.

I didn’t leave right away. What was the hurry? Dad had died. It was over. I sat for a few minutes with my husband and friends. We made a toast to him. I listened to the wind rustling the maple leaves and the guy mowing his lawn across the street and the blood rustling around in my ears. August. It was August.

Then I left to travel the 53 miles from our house, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the winding road to my childhood home, to Mom and Dad’s.

“Do you want me to go with you?” my husband asked.

“No.” I wanted to be alone to cross the Hudson River, to go from when my dad had been alive to the rest of my life.

I drove carefully, mulling over the sentence, “Dad died.”

Dad died. So many ds. Were they plosives? I moved my lips and said it out loud. “Dad died,” and the ds made bursts of air like small, gentle explosions from a cannon filled with confetti. Yes, plosives. Dad died—the d’s soft as pillows, just t’s really, wrapped up in spider webs. Dad died. He died.

Dad. A palindrome—he would have loved that. Dad died. Such a compact sentence—subject, verb, period. A sentence I had never said before that would be true forever now. Dad died.

*     *     *

Dad had been hoping to die since before the nursing home, and why not? He was unable to stand or walk, unable to feed himself, unable to read. For the final few months, the first thing he’d say upon waking in the morning was, “Oh shit, I’m still alive.” No kidding.

He had a dream. “I was trying to sign the check but no one would give me a pen.”

“Sign the check?” I’d ask.

“A check to let me die.”

“Oh, how frustrating.”

“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible.”

While Dad was in the nursing home, I worried about him being safe. I pitied him this rotten ending. At night I’d wonder if he was scared or lonely. I didn’t want to be there with him, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else—there was not a moment’s peace for anyone who loved him.

Still, his death was a surprise. When one’s father dies, it’s always a surprise.

*     *     *

As I inched up to the tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I wanted to tell the toll collector what had happened. Shouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t people be told that everything had changed? I wanted to hand him my five singles and say, “Dad died,” look into his eyes for a moment and then drive off, having delivered the sad news.

Instead I was robotic. “Thank you,” I said. He took my money without looking up.

*     *     *

The youngest of four kids, I was the neurotic one. An insomniac by seven years old, I would fill my bed with books so that when I awoke in the night to a silent house I’d have company. One night, as I lay working my way through Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me for a nickel at a yard sale), there was a tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Dad whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Come in.”

He opened the door. “I couldn’t sleep,” he had a haggard look on his face. He was an insomniac too, and a reader, and neurotic. “I saw your light on. Want a cheese sandwich?”

We crept downstairs and sat together at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating cheese sandwiches, two friends who had found one another in the massive, lonely ocean of insomnia.

Later, as the sky was going from black to dark blue, I climbed into my bed, turned the light off, and fell asleep, the crumbling, five-cent copy of Harriet in my sweaty hand.

*     *     *

When he had still been mostly well, we liked to carry our lunch into Bryant Park and sit under the plane trees with strangers. We’d listen to the live piano music. He was a New Yorker, Dad was, but he couldn’t walk far anymore, couldn’t remember simple things, like where his coat was, so we would take the elevator down and cross 40th Street right into the park, like it was ours, like it was filled with our guests. He’d smile at the music. He’d reach for my arm and say, “Isn’t this magic?”

People die slowly, I understood much later. They don’t die in an instant like they do in the movies. It happens in the most infinitesimal steps—in tiny, imperceptible stages. He was beginning to die even then, although I only realized it afterwards.

*     *     *

He stopped making much sense in the final months, the line between reality and hallucinations blurring. “There’s a man in a field,” he said to me one day. “He’s standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He’s shouting.”

“Is he friendly?” I asked.

“Oh yes. He’s shouting for me to come with him.” He closed his eyes and I thought he might be falling asleep. Then, in a thin, wobbly voice, he began to sing without opening his eyes, stanza after stanza after stanza of a song I’d never heard.

I kept still. If I interrupted, he’d lose his train of thought.

I felt the sun beating down on our clasped-together hands.

“I can’t remember the rest,” he said and we opened our eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asked. He mimicked my expression of sorrow because it was what lay in front of him, knitting his eyebrows together like mine, his eyes tearing-up.

“Nothing’s wrong, Dad. It’s just nice to hear you sing.”

He began to pick imaginary threads from his shirt and hand them to me.  I took a few and then told him, “You can drop the rest on the floor. The nurses will sweep them up.”

“That wouldn’t be right,” he said, “to throw them on the floor for someone else to clean.”

*     *     *

After the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took back roads the rest of the way; roads Dad and I had biked once. I felt like my heart was wrapped in a thousand blankets beating somewhere outside of my body.

I knew that the moment one’s father died was something a kid owned. It was mine. I owned his death. I was aware, from somewhere outside of myself, that I was in the middle of a rite of passage, something whose effect I would only later understand, and only maybe, even then.

I drove past neighbors’ houses, but those neighbors hadn’t lived in those houses for decades: Mrs. Whitfield’s house, the Rowells, the Giovincos, the Sloans. Everyone I knew was gone. People I didn’t know lived there now. I turned on the radio and then turned it off. Everything but my heartbeat distracted me.

*     *     *

He hadn’t always been perfect. I had hated him for saying mean things to my sister when she was trying to learn her multiplication tables. He was bossy and moody and unpredictable, but later on he asked me over and over again to forgive him. By then I had my own life, and he had mellowed and I wasn’t mad at him anymore. We were friends by the time he began to apologize.

A few weeks before he died, I told him, “I think about you here and I hope you’re ok. I think of you all the time.” He sat there a minute. I couldn’t tell if he had understood me.

He leaned forward the tiny bit that he was able. “It’s time,” he said, “for you to stop thinking about me.”

“I don’t want to stop thinking about you,” I said.

“I should have been dead a long time ago. It’s time you stopped thinking about me now.” He nodded and closed his eyes. I knew he was right. I needed to stay in the land of the living. He was going one place, and I was going someplace else.

*     *     *

I drove in second gear past the nature center where we used to sing Christmas carols with neighbors. That memory hurt, like it was a kite tied to my ribcage, tugging at me, pulling me backwards toward a suffocating nostalgia.

I drove along Spring Valley. The road was so narrow that the August vines seemed to be reaching for my car, trying to yank me into the past.

I turned up the road to Mom and Dad’s house, which I realized was now just Mom’s. As I neared it, the feeling of being pulled back and back by the vines and the kite in the strong wind of the August afternoon intensified.

Dad died, I thought, and my desire to be a child again welled up with such force that I felt the kite string strain and then snap, the freed kite lofting up and up into the windy blue sky. The vines seemed to retract as I pulled into Mom’s driveway, feeling myself re-enter my body. I turned off the car and sat there, thinking about getting lost with Dad decades earlier. Getting lost then had not been scary. Getting lost, if handled correctly, could be a good thing.

N. West MossN. West Moss is a MacDowell fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesMemoir JournalHospital Drive, and elsewhere. She was awarded gold medals recently from the Faulkner-Wisdom Contest for her fiction and nonfiction work. Her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878, is under agent consideration, as is her collection of short stories, set in Bryant Park in New York City. She is currently working on a YA novel. “Dad Died” is her attempt to convey all that went through her mind in the single hour following her father’s death.

Dayenu

The rabbi hands me the shovel, instructing me to invert its bowl before scooping the first mound of earth onto my father’s grave. This is the custom, he explains. To honor our loved one’s memory, we must demonstrate our reluctance to perform this obligatory task. With an upside-down shovel, the rabbi says, his free hand patting my shoulder, you cannot hurry.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get this over with. I’ve never had much patience for the Torah. I am more at home in a deli than in a synagogue, so I think about food. The shovel, as a giant spoon. I remember my father’s dinner plate, how he’d always save his favorite thing for last. Family meals were object lessons in perseverance, fortitude, denial. Dad would not permit himself his beloved mashed potatoes until they sat alone on his plate, the buttery, fluffy white mountain the sole survivor, outlasting lukewarm meatloaf and limp green beans.

Dad is a human garbage disposal, my mother and sister and I joked, watching him peer into the refrigerator to retrieve expired containers of sour cream and salad dressing—not to throw away, but to ladle atop his meal. Paper breakfast napkins were turned inside out and reappeared at dinner, stale bread became croutons for his salad, the last dribble of sour milk was poured over his cereal or into his coffee where it would curdle. While we helped ourselves to seconds, Dad waited to refill his own plate, weighing the odds that a scrap or two might be left behind.

Two years ago in the spring, my father pushed himself away from my table, hands laced over his belly, saying he’d had enough to eat. We had just finished our Passover Seder, one of Judaism’s most symbol-laden meals. We dipped vegetables in salt water that represented the tears of Jewish slaves. We ate matzo, unleavened bread meant to remind us of the Jews’ hurried escape from Egypt. We used the tips of our pinky fingers to spill red wine onto our plates, one drop for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. We concluded dinner with the song Dayenu. Dayenu, loosely translated from Hebrew as “Enough,” gave thanks for the many triumphs permitting the Jewish exodus. At the end of every verse, we sang a round of “Dayenu, Dayenu” signifying that each of the many miracles, on its own, would have been sufficient. Dayenu, our Passover Haggadah text said, was about more than praising God. It was a song that examined the status-quo mentality of always wanting more. Instead, the chorus urged us, raise your voices in gratitude for what you have.

Dad patted his midsection, saying he’d had enough matzo ball soup, enough brisket, enough potatoes. It was the first year he had turned over the role of conducting our family Seder to my husband. My father’s old Haggadah was stuffed with Post-Its and newspaper articles. His Seders were full of digressions referencing everything from the Talmud to the L.A. Times. Each piece of notepaper or newspaper pulled from its pages meant another few minutes tacked onto the Seder run time. Growing up, my sister and I flipped through our Haggadahs under the table, counting down the number of pages we’d have to endure, pressing the books against our bellies to stifle the rumblings until we got to the long-awaited line of boldface, italicized type directing Seder participants to eat the “Festive Meal.” The two of us had never gone more than a handful of hours between meals in our entire lives. Nevertheless, at our Seders, we cupped a hand, whispering into each other’s ears, I hope Dad hurries up, I’m starving.

My husband’s Haggadah had Post-Its, too—indicating the sections and paragraphs we could skip. Our children, who hadn’t received a formal Jewish education and were being raised in a non-religious household, were happier, and Dad didn’t seem to mind. My father was tired lately. He had become quieter. None of us knew that a tumor had been growing inside his stomach for months. If Dad felt something was wrong, he didn’t let on. Instead, he joked. “Dayenu!” he grinned. It didn’t occur to us that his hand might be pressing down to still hunger or pain. A hand on the belly meant Dad was full, and that was that. We’d never questioned why Dad didn’t take a last helping before asking whether everyone else had already had enough. We’d never argued with him when he said he’d be happy to scrape the layer of mold off the top of the old cream cheese for his bagel. The new package, he’d say, is meant for you. That was the kind of guy Dad was. Why would Passover be different?

My father was as cautious and measured with the information he offered up about his childhood as he was with the portions he took onto his plate. There was one story, though, that he told again and again. It was 1944, and Dad was eight years old. His father was dead, his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and he was in hiding with his aunt and uncle, living in the basement of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest with several other families. One day, a bomb ripped through a nearby building. Plaster rained down from the ceiling in jagged chunks. No one was hurt. Most important, my father said, someone had thought to cover the pot of cabbage soup simmering on the stove. Because of that, the food was salvageable. “We were lucky,” Dad said. “So very lucky and thankful. We got to eat that day.”

The Nazis didn’t manage to kill my father. Many years later, Dad’s own body let him down, in revolt against itself. Cancer, alarming in its ordinariness and stealth, was an indiscriminate and efficient assassin. The morning my father died, on a borrowed hospital bed in my childhood bedroom, his robust body was whittled down to not much more than the essence of a body, to the idea of one, to mottled skin stretched over brittle bone. I thought of my grandmother, dead at forty from typhus contracted in Dachau, as I held Dad’s hand one last time. With its papery skin and feeble pulse, it was so delicate and insubstantial I felt as though he might float away if I let go.

On a hill at Mount Sinai cemetery, overlooking the Holocaust memorial, I’m holding a shovel instead of my father’s hand. It weighs five pounds, then ten pounds, then one hundred pounds, then one thousand. I scoop the dirt, hearing the hollow thud as it hits my father’s casket, and pass the shovel to my mother and sister. Beside us, a line of my male cousins assembles, suit jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up against the punishing 101° August heat. One by one, they perform the ceremonial burial, shovel bowl-side up, flipping it back over to finish the job. Brows dripping, temples throbbing, forearms rippling, backs hunched over in shirts turning translucent with sweat, they move an enormous mountain of displaced soil back into the grave. No one speaks. The pine box holding my father’s body is obscured and the thuds become muffled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt atop more dirt. My father would be embarrassed by their exertions. I can hear him urging: please, please don’t go to all of this trouble. Don’t wear yourselves out on account of me.

Back at my house, platters from Canter’s Delicatessen await the mourners. There are pinwheels of roast beef and corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese and muenster. There are containers of pickles and pepperoncini and olives, coleslaw and potato salad, mustard and mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. There are baskets of rye bread and challah and rolls, plates brimming with chocolate chip and cinnamon rugelach and rainbow sprinkle cookies. There is coffee, regular and decaf. The excess suddenly makes me nauseated with shame. I picture my father standing at the end of the buffet, last in the long line of people winding out of my kitchen into the living room, where the early birds already sit in folding chairs, balancing sagging paper plates atop their knees. My father waits patiently, content with maybe half a pastrami and cheese sandwich, one pickle spear, a tablespoon each of potato salad and coleslaw, a broken cookie. At his own Jewish funeral, where a shortage of food would be inconceivable, Dad still wants to make sure there is enough for everyone else.

Once the guests are gone, I wander through each room, picking up a crumpled napkin here, a coffee cup and a nibbled quarter of sandwich there, sweeping cookie crumbs off a card table into my cupped hand. But I can only busy myself for so long. Back in the kitchen, the silence becomes a roaring in my ears that makes me dizzy. I double over the sink and weep, enough tears to fill cups of saltwater lining dozens of Seder tables. When I lift my head, I picture my father standing right beside me. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s retrieving the used plastic forks and knives from the trash. He wipes each one with a soapy sponge and rinses them off in the sink. As he dries them with a dishtowel, he tells me they’ll come in handy when I pack his grandchildren’s school lunches. He divides up the leftover lunchmeat and cheeses, asking to borrow a black felt-tipped Sharpie so he can carefully label each Ziploc bag before stowing it in my freezer. Maybe you can have a picnic, he says. Or another dinner, for a rainy day. Sweetheart, he continues, because that is what my father has called me my whole life, don’t let any of this delicious food go to waste.

No, Rabbi, I am not eager. I have not had anywhere near enough.

Melinda BlumMelinda Gordon Blum’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesLive Wire, and The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write.” A lifelong Californian, she lives in Hollywood with her husband, two sons, and two cats. Her favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Time Enough At Last,” about an avid bookworm who, along with his books, survives an apocalypse—only to break his reading glasses.

Requiem for a Marriage

“To James, In Requiem,” the wedding present ditty reads.

I open a yellowed envelope and find it tucked in a “Wedding Congratulations” card dated April 10, 1948, signed by twenty-seven people. My father’s coworkers at his engineering firm perhaps? None of the names seem familiar. A lavender orchid decorates the front of the card, with this verse inside:

+++++++Today’s congratulations

+++++++Carry with them, too,

+++++++The very best of wishes,

+++++++For years of joy for you!

It’s something my mother wants me to have, apparently, one of the few cards included in a haphazard stack of old photos she pressed on me the last time I visited her in North Carolina. A confused jumble, some in envelopes that are blank or mislabeled.

Alone in her apartment she pores over old boxes of memorabilia, reshuffling and sorting them according to some system only she can understand. A day later she’ll tell me that they’ve been moved, though the housekeeper wasn’t there, or that a box is empty that was full before. Sometimes she reads old cards to me on the phone, touched by the preprinted sentiments on Hallmark birthday cards and valentines my father sent her long ago. Probably she will tell me this wedding card was stolen, a few months from now.

She is often confused. She calls the management of her Independent Living complex to report that two brown jackets have been stolen. That a black blouse that isn’t hers has mysteriously appeared in her closet, and what should she do with it? That her nursing pin, which she’s forgotten that she gave me for safekeeping last year, is missing from her jewelry box. That someone has substituted a different pair of binoculars for her husband’s. “I’ve never seen these before,” she tells me. “I can’t find your father’s binoculars anywhere.”

My father died five years ago, making the title of the sixty-year-old mock “Requiem” somewhat startling. The rollicking rhymes are typewritten on a sheet of white business paper, folded in half and then in half again to fit inside the wedding card. They were probably composed by some wag at the office and read aloud at the wedding reception. Or maybe my parents chuckled over them in private when they opened their gifts after the honeymoon. It’s nineteen-forties humor—the carefree male has relinquished his freedom and suffered a kind of death by capitulating to the demands of marriage:

+++++++That Jim, to whom all the maidens looked,

+++++++For rescue from the shelf

+++++++Should go and get himself be-hooked

+++++++Is a sad commentary on himself.

*     *     *

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation. My mother Peggy was still a teenager, a lively, pretty, and somewhat giddy young nurse. Nine years her senior, Jim was a staid engineer, bookish and antisocial. She always said he was handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Tyrone Power. She thought it was glamorous to be dating an older man. Shortly after they started seeing each other, he left on an extended voyage to India and the Middle East to earn his engineering license as a machinist. That was exotic too, getting postcards from Calcutta and Port Said. “Missing you!”

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation.

When they finally married, he was thirty, she was twenty-one. Their age difference isn’t apparent in their formal wedding portrait. She is regal in a flowing satin dress with seed pearls stitched around a scalloped neckline. Serious and proud, he stands erect beside her in full tails and pinstriped trousers. My mother was 5’9”, my father not much taller. I don’t know if she was wearing flats, but I know that she did when they were dating. She looks very beautiful, her brown hair in waves, her expression serene. He is indeed very handsome, his hair jet black, his face pale. There is a solemn purity in their expressions as they look forward to their unknown future together.

*     *     *

She gave up her nursing job when she became pregnant. By the standards of the day, she’d made it. “All of the other nurses were jealous,” she told me. She was married to a prosperous professional; they’d decorated their Jersey City apartment in daring modern style, with freeform orange glass ashtrays, a tailored studio bed with abstract figured upholstery in browns and yellows, and Dufy and Picasso reproductions on the walls. She was surrounded by wedding presents, and Jim was always buying her modern copper jewelry.

There wasn’t a lot to do, though. She wasn’t keen on housekeeping. She liked a good gossip but all her friends were busy at the hospital. When their baby girl was born she had her hands full. “I’ve got my hands full,” she told the grocer. “Our new baby is a handful,” she told the dry cleaner. Motherhood wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. The baby shrieked all day long, and while she knew it was just colic, there were days she thought it would drive her mad.

+++++++However, inasmuch as he

+++++++Has dashed their hopes thus down the drain,

+++++++The only compensation we

+++++++Can offer for the ball and chain

+++++++Is this carving set…

It was hard to say who was more bound by the ball and chain. Jim was still free to work and move around in the world, while she was confined to the house and a squalling infant. Jim took over child care in the evenings, walking the baby back and forth, back and forth in their tiny living room, but life just wasn’t all that much fun any more.

He seemed bent on changing everything about her that had attracted him to begin with, criticizing her loquacious high spirits, suggesting that she read more, learn more about modern art and music. He recommended a more severe hairstyle, with her hair pulled away from her face. They were saving to buy a house, and went out less. He’d never liked to dance the way she had anyway. It was her idea to start a penny budget, recording each day’s expenses on a notepad, and then transferring them to leather binders for financial projections. It was something to do. Her mother had warned her that maintaining household finances was going to be difficult. “You’re not going to be able to spend all your salary on clothes anymore.” Managing their money made her feel grownup.

+++++++Is this carving set, ostensibly

+++++++For cutting meat—but could

+++++++Be used, to set him free

+++++++If things by any chance should?

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

*     *     * 

Soon enough they moved to the suburbs, another child on the way, and she became a suburban housewife and mother in the PTA. For a while she enjoyed the domestic flurry, trading recipes, cooking pot roasts and meat loafs, and tuna casseroles. Bent over a Singer sewing machine in the upstairs master bedroom, she produced two seersucker nightgowns for her daughter, and a red felt skating skirt, complete with appliques of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. She and three of the other first grade mothers did a high-spirited can-can at the PTA talent show that they rehearsed for many weeks before the event. They were giddy with laughter.

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

But the other mothers were busy with their own children and households, and she was often lonely during the day, spending afternoons watching soap operas on TV, waiting for Jim to come home from work in the city. “General Hospital” was her favorite. She left the TV on all day—“for company,” she said.

Evenings, after his long commute, Jim was increasingly impatient with her need for conversation, preferring to settle in with a scotch and the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m reading, Peggy. Can’t you see I’m reading?”

She drank a martini, and then a second, and couldn’t seem to refrain from interrupting him. “Jim? Oh, never mind.”

She worked on a book of crossword puzzles, started up again. “Joan called today. You won’t believe what Harriet is spending on their new living room set.”

“Peg, I’ve been working all day. Can’t I have a little peace?”

+++++++The cocktail set, will also help

+++++++When with potent spirit filled,

+++++++To recapture that carefree self

+++++++Now relinquished and willed.

She never felt like cooking or cleaning any more. She’d discovered that exertion gave her hives. Complaining of allergies, chronic colds, and fatigue, she began to spend her days in bed. The drapes were always drawn while she napped and watched the soaps. Her children tiptoed into the house after school, their voices hushed. When Jim got home from work, she pulled a housedress on over her nightgown and settled downstairs on the living room couch with a martini and cigarette to complain about her day.

“I just don’t have any pep today. I don’t understand it. Of course I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment for Thursday. We’re going to try a specialist. I think I’m allergic to something, and Dr. Williams does too.”

He never questioned her multiplying ailments, but they fought about her talking, they fought about who was going to make dinner.

“You know I get hives from the hot stove,” she said.

More often than not, he threw down the newspaper in disgust and strode into the kitchen to improvise a meal.

Sometimes he didn’t, and she announced, “It’s do-it-yourself night, kids!”

Tensions escalated when the children became teenagers. Their son rebelled against his father’s authoritarian control by flunking his classes. Their daughter mouthed off about her mother’s hypochondria, her father’s politics, American imperialism, and life in suburbia.

Jim retreated in angry disappointment from all of them.

For a while after the children left for college, Peggy emerged from the bedroom and developed her own social life, playing bridge in the evenings, earning a Life Master certificate in duplicate bridge tournaments. Jim declined to play bridge, or to engage in any activities she excelled at. They continued to bicker, and soon her lethargy and chronic illnesses returned. Both children moved thousands of miles away when they married. They rarely came home, and their parents never traveled to see them.

*     *     *

The first time my husband visited my parents, he was astonished. “It’s like a war zone.” My father had taken over the food shopping and cooking completely after his retirement and became enraged when my mother peeked into the kitchen. “It’s under control, Peg,” he said, banging pots and slamming cabinet doors. At the dinner table, he was angry when she interrupted him. She fumed when he rebuked her. They fought about what to have for dessert. About the correct way to load the dishwasher. About our plans for the next day. There were no victors in their skirmishes, the product of decades of simmering tension and sniping.

It was hard to explain to my husband why they stayed with each other. It was nothing like his large extended family, where squabbles were short-lived and everyone was always gossiping and giving advice. Maybe there is no explanation.

The times. Their Catholic upbringings. My father’s strong sense of duty. The energy my mother had invested in her self-diagnoses and self-delusions. Inertia. Familiarity. Fear of being alone. Habit.

*     *     *

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost. The missing objects they shared have taken on exaggerated sentimental value. The carving set. The martini shaker and glasses. “We had cocktails every night,” she says, proud of their sophistication, forgetting the discord. The silver pitcher that she wrapped tightly in cellophane after their wedding and never used. The pewter chandelier that hung over the dining table in their house in New Jersey. “It was just lovely. Remember that chandelier? I was surprised neither of you kids wanted to take it when we moved.” The ceramic ducks they bought on their trip to Spain. “You haven’t seen the ducks, have you?” she asks every time we visit, though her rooms are overflowing with boxes of knickknacks that have never been unpacked.

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost.

She sorts through mementoes and scrapbooks of their life together, lost in nostalgia for the fictional marriage she has created. Eyes narrowed in concentration, she shuffles stacks of old greeting cards that she pulls out of their envelopes and strains to read with her bifocals. She mouths the verses out loud, setting her favorite cards aside so she can repeat the ritual again a week later.

“The man was a saint, a real saint,” she likes to say, shaking her head in rueful regret at his passing. Her requiem for James.

*     *     *

I write scenes of my parents’ life together, holding snippets up to the light, selecting, rewriting, rearranging. I choose some to keep, others to toss back into my box of jumbled memories to look at later. Do I see through a glass darkly when I reveal the unhappiness of their union? Was there something I didn’t hear, under the prolonged cacophony of their disputes? A requiem is an act of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead, yet remembrance doesn’t always bring repose, for the dead or the living. I search for insight as I create my own fictions of the past, I look for resolution, but sometimes I think I’m no closer to understanding what kept my parents together, or why our family fell apart.

“Peg, could you please just be quiet? Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”

“I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. She has published creative nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana ReviewNinth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review, and fiction in Lunch Ticket, Confrontation, Tampa Review online, and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle

This Is the Way We Wash the Clothes

FACT: I am fourteen years old. I already know more than my mother does. She doesn’t drive. She doesn’t work. My mother quit school after eighth grade and went to vocational school. Now she has kids in grade school, junior high, and high school, plus four more at home, three in diapers, cloth diapers. Every day she stays at home. She washes clothes in the wringer washer in the cellar.  During commercial breaks from Search for Tomorrow until One Life to Live many hours later, she takes out the last load, puts in another, and hangs clothes on the line.

Her coffee cup and saucer sit beside her on the couch arm rest. If we interrupt her while her stories are on, she sometimes says, “Leave me alone!” She sometimes says, “I just don’t feel ambitious today.”

FACT: We live up north, in the boonies, the sticks, further back in time than the town. I go to high school. My teachers say I will go to college. I am in choir. I am in debate. I wear micro-miniskirts. I have babysitting money. I do not watch soap operas.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm between wrist and elbow, white pudding-y streaks on the skin and a bumpy bone that pushes up. She kept it out of sight, close to her side for years. I never really noticed. She got her arm caught in a wringer. That was one of only two or three brief stories about her childhood. Her brother drowned a cat in a bucket of tar Grandpa was using to fix the roof. She got her head shaved and the kids at school pulled her scarf off and chased her home, yelling “Lice head! Lice head!”

My mother set her hair with bobby pins and used home permanents and powdered her face on Sunday when she wore her blue dress. My mother was pretty. Her voice when she sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” or lullabies, was low, and I realize now, beautiful.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Summer vacation. I am bored, ambitious, and superior, so I graciously do the laundry, sure I will do a better job than my mother. My sister, Grace, comes down the cellar steps to help. She is four or five with dark wispy hair, an age that admires teens. “I wish I had pimples like you,” she says.

At the bottom right of the wooden steps my father made is a barrel stove on a dirt floor; on the left is a concrete floor and a wringer washer. Behind the washer are cobwebby wooden shelves filled with jars that gleam in the dimness: twenty quarts of tomatoes, thirty quarts of sweet and sour beans, apple butter, pieplant, pickled beets, plum jam with white paraffin on the top, a few big jars of pickled herring. In the fall and winter, piles of pumpkins and squashes lie there too, and potatoes whose eyes grow a foot long, reaching out like white umbilical cords.

The wringer washer, a stout lady on four iron legs with a roller bar like crossed arms, is already groaning and sloshing, plugged into a temporary electrical outlet which screws into the light socket. The light bulb screws into the other end; when you pull a string to turn off the light, the washer suddenly stops.

FACT: I don’t remember every detail. Twin rinse tubsgalvanized tin on legs with rollersare filled with water from a hose attached to a spigot somewhere. My mother has already filled the tubs. We open the washer lid, the agitator stops, and we fish the laundry out of the washer. Grace feeds the clothes between the dough-colored rollers into the first rinse tub. I stand on the other side helping them through. We both like the squiSsSSSHHHH of water hissing through the white pockets of jeans and spraying in our faces.

FACT: The wringer strips the newness out of clothes. My favorite tee shirt will be rough and stretched out on the bottom, faded from the sun; it will never feel soft again. It makes me look different and I long for a dryer like my school friends have, the ones with piano lessons, who swim at the Y and have lots of shampoo and conditioner in their bathrooms.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

We wash all our clothes in the same cold washwater. First pillowcases, towels, sheets, and not-too-dirty things. Add more Fels Naptha from the shiny green box, then do underwear and t-shirts. Add more soap until the water is slippery and gray. Put in diapers. Last of all, Dad’s overalls stiff with concrete. There’s sand in the bottom of the washer. When all the clothes are washed and rinsed and wrung and hung on the clothesline outside, we’re still not done. We have to empty the washer and the two rinse tubs. Unhook the stiff black hose from the washer’s edge, fill a pail, and carry it up the outside stairs and all around the house, past the lilac bush, past the clothesline, across the driveway out to the garden; because there’s no drain in the cellar floor. That’s why we don’t change water for every load.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

Grace and I are probably doing towels. Suddenly Grace cries, “Help!”  Her fingers are stuck between the rollers.

“Pull!” I say. It seems obvious enough. How could it be hard to pull her fingers out?

“I am but they won’t come out.” She whimpers.

I am certain I can get them out. I reach over and pull hard. “Ouch!” They won’t come; pulling only stretches her skin. The most I can do is keep her hand from going further in. My confidence evaporates. What will we do? What will we do? Then I notice the flat white bar on top of the wringer arm with words on it like “Safety Release” or “Emergency Release,” It should have been obvious but it wasn’t. I slam it hard with the palm of my hand. Nothing happens. Dammit. I slam again and press down. Like magic, the rollers come apart, and Grace pulls her hand out. Her fingers are cold and red but nothing is broken.

“Thank God!” I hug Grace. “Someone invented that after people got their hands caught,” I tell her. I am SO grateful to whoever it was.

FACT: “The revolving rollers exert 800 pounds of pressure.” Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

FACT: The plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, was feeding some wash into the wringer… Her fingers became entangled in the wet clothes and were pulled into the wringer…, causing her to sustain injuries to her arm. The washer was equipped with a safety release mechanism. However, it was located to the right of the machine and the plaintiff, while she was able to reach it, was not able to exert enough pressure on it to release the wringer.

Grace and I take a minute to calm down, and then go back to doing laundry. The flattened clothes fold into the clothesbasket in layers like Christmas ribbon candy. Together we carry the bushel basket with the falling-out bottom up the concrete steps. The thin metal handles dig into our hands as we pass the lilac bushes, and dump the load under the clothesline pole my father made. We hang up the wash.

On the way back we stop in the living room and tell my mom what happened. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Didn’t you get your hand caught in a wringer when you were young?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I sure did,” she says and turns back to her soap operas.

Many years later, I ask her more.

FACT: My grandmother was a trailblazer. In the 1940s when only movie stars got divorced, she got divorced. Twice. She had eight kids and worked as a cook in a bar. My mother stayed home, watched her younger brothers and sisters, and did the chores.

Although I’ve asked my mother, I don’t have all the facts: She probably stood on a chair to feed the clothes through the wringer. She was all by herself when the rollers sucked her fingers in. She must have pulled; but the rollers pulled back, sucked in the hand, twisted the skin, swallowed her arm nearly to the elbow. She pulled till the skin came loose, twisted it around to the other side of her arm, tore it open to make those scars. She may have had the wits to try to pull the plug, to turn the machine off, but couldn’t reach that far. How do you fight the machine with only a girl’s strength? How do you pull back against a thing that never tires? The pressure, the tightness became unbearable until her bone cracked. She must have screamed, cried for help, with no one around but her younger brother and sisters. How long did she cry and scream before a neighbor heard her and came over? How did they get her arm out? With a crowbar? A claw hammer? Was there a release bar on that washer?

My mother says she went to the hospital and wore her arm in a sling, but how could a sling be enough when a bone is sticking up?

FACT: When this happened, my mother was six years old.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm, a dramatic striation like layers in onyx, and on the inside between wrist and elbow, a bump pushes the skin up. She showed me how she can’t spread her fingers out straight, something I never noticed. It was never a big deal. She got used to the damage, an echo of one day when a girl of six did the family wash.

FACT: My mother is not bitter.

FACT: My mother’s flawed arm lifted ten babies and carried fire logs and dishpans of water and bushel baskets of wet clothes up the cellar steps out to the clothesline.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Lita KurthLita Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop): work accepted or published in FjordsReviewReduxRaven ChroniclesMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceeliipsis…literature and artComposeTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewVermont Literary Review, and othersHer work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Phantom Language

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely

“I don’t remember anything that happened to me.” Michael lifts his hands to chest level as if he is about to catch something. He has beautiful hands that make neat stitches on a hem or trace in the air music’s rise and fall.

Now they feel the emptiness in front of him, searching its parameters, the borders of this forgetting.

“I don’t remember anything, really.” He looks up and to the left as if the memory hangs somewhere in his periphery.

“My time in jail is a blank time.”

His memory, attuned to the finest details, was one of the first things I noticed about him. We both volunteer in the food bank’s garden and, as we eased lettuce seedlings into the ground, he told me a story saturated with particulars: what everyone wore, how they sat, the type of wood the table was made from, how its grain aligned.

I had noticed a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as we weeded. It is a cross, lightly colored, mostly scar, the size of a silver dollar. When I asked about it, he continued to dig for a few moments. Then straightened up and faced me.

“I don’t usually tell people this, but I don’t want to lie to you. I got it in jail.”

I wait for the story, but the prison—its walls, its people, its colors—is blank.

What he remembers is this: Moby-Dick, An American Tragedy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Look Homeward, Angel­—paperbacks he read in the prison library. He can recite the first chapter of Moby-Dick from “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” shaping the sentences with his hands, marking commas with his index finger.

Shortly after leaving prison, he let two friends trying to break into the business tattoo the left side of his back with a saucer-sized black circle caught in a net of angular tendrils that reach over his left shoulder and down to his lower back, scooping around his waist. Nearly a decade and a half later, he chose a tattoo for his right side and hired an established professional to render the spectral cherry blossoms of Ando Hiroshige, with subtle browns and pinks, little blue sepals cup each blossom. The delicate branches mirror the crude tendrils, reaching toward the blank space over his spine.

 

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off, the ones which remind us of our precariousness, remind us our intellects won’t save us, remind us we are animal—the sudden crack of the ice, the rearward tilt of the ladder, the lunge of the dog’s teeth. Those times when our bodies, gripped by pain, become foreign to us, even antagonistic. When relating these stories language retreats and the body takes over narration. One rises from the chair, lifts the arms, or drags the collar down to show—there, there is where it broke.

I rise almost without realizing in the thin hospital gown and say, “I was like this.”

Say, “He had me like this.”

Then even those fragments break apart, separating from one another like petals as a blossom scatters in a strong wind, and the nurse takes me to the table so my body can continue telling. Telling with blood, with swab, telling with flinch, telling the needle, telling the stitch. The single stitch. The nurse’s hand on my shoulder telling me we can stop at any time.

 

Take almost any path you please

Browsing in a used bookstore, I found an ancient botany book, pages stiff with age, crenulated from water damage. The author, whose name was obliterated when someone tried to pull the title page from the cover, writes, “Poppies deflorate with such rapidity that their loss of identity is nearly instantaneous.”

 

Nothing will content them but the extremist

The injury resulting from violence is a particular species of injury, distinct from the broken ice, fallen ladder, startled dog. It is the result of force as defined by Simone Weil, “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3).

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off…

When violence is inflicted on the body, the body is evacuated of self; it becomes a vacant site upon which another acts, a blank where the aggressor inscribes their own narrative. Once I saw a photograph of a man who had been lynched and set on fire. His body slumps against the tree, a shell of ash, the ribs and sternum whittled down by heat, legs sprawl in front. He still wears black dress shoes and patterned socks. His head is gone; his name not recorded.

The photograph was in Without Sanctuary, an exhibit I saw at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As I stood in front of the photo of the decapitated body, I saw that we, the mostly white viewers, were reflected in the glass, our apparitions interspersed with those of the mob.

The photographs were presented with little historical context, as objects meant for our gaze, matted on dark gray paper, framed in silver.  This crowd of well-educated museum-goers was probably already aware that lynching occurred with astonishing frequency up through the 1960s, and continues, though sporadically, into the present. What new knowledge did these photographs bring us? Why had I come to the exhibit?

We learned nothing of the man in the photo. He remains evacuated, a space upon which our gaze rests. Like the mob, we look at this man as wholly body, a mute thing. Like the mob, we stand in the serenity of our belief that we were not the ones who did it; we are not the violent ones.

 

Sleeps his meadow

Though the act of representing violence arises from the laudable intention to expose abuses, it carries the risk of replicating Weil’s formula: to make our looking “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This particular critique of the image was raised after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos by a variety of critics and writers. In Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry,” the poet Philip Metres argues that the “mass media’s recirculation of visual images of naked and dominated Iraqi men completed the acts that Charles Graner and other United States military police had begun” (1596). Metres implies that torture requires spectatorship. The humiliation of the prisoners involved the threat the photographs would be seen. By looking at them, we help Graner make good on his threat.

Metres asserts that looking at such photographs amounts to participating in maintaining the structure that allows for, even encourages, these brutalities. He writes that the photos inspire “a psychic defense against identifying with the victims that imperial ideology requires to maintain hegemony of its beneficiaries-subjects” (1597).In other words, we guard discomfort by imagining what it is like to be the torturer instead of the tortured. In identifying with the perpetrator, our impulse is to seek justifications for their actions rather than retribution for the victim.

The Abu Ghraib photos lend themselves readily to this reading; victims’ faces are always obscured and the bodies arranged in abstract planes and shadows, while the aggressors look directly at the camera, engaging with the viewer. As Arthur C. Danto writes in The Nation, “When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.”

However, the danger of a photo objectifying its subject must surely be outweighed by the need to expose wrongdoing. Amnesty International reported incidences of torture at Abu Ghraib as early as July 2003. Only after the photos were shown during an April 28, 2004 episode of 60 Minutes II did the Army begin a serious investigation of prisoner abuse. How do we balance the need for information with the inherent danger contained in the images of tortured bodies? More importantly, why do we need these photos? Why does empathy require the image?

 

Should you ever be athirst

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved to go to Buhl’s Planetarium to watch the Foucault’s pendulum in the vaulted entryway. I would peer over the brass railing into the marble well and follow the path of the copper bob as it swung back and forth above a disk of green stone set in the floor. As my sisters scattered into the museum I would wait for the bob to tip over one of the silver pegs. If I went late in the day, I could watch the final peg fall.

After the assault, it took me a month to realize what had happened. I had a hundred ways to explain it away: a mishap, mistake, or miscommunication. In a strange echo of Metres’ theory, I sympathized with my attacker. I thought he didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe I gave him mixed signals. It was no big deal, he apologized. I bet he feels terrible. I arranged all my explanations like little silver pegs in a circle around me.

However, I experienced continuing health issues and needed to return to the doctor. Unable to face the examining room alone, I reached out to a friend. As I told her the version of events I had concocted to protect myself from feeling like a victim, I watched her face reveal horror. She put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “But you said no.” The final peg fell and rolled into some dark recess. I could barely catch my breath as the realization opened up a well of grief inside me.

Then I wanted to talk about it all the time, to whoever would listen. I was shocked by the insistence, my need to speak into the blank left by the attack, to assert myself against that X reducing me to a thing. To say, “I was raped” is to use “I” as a subject. To say, “I survived sexual assault” is to use “I” as a subject in an active sentence construction. To say, “Though I survived sexual assault, I am starting to feel less afraid” situates the subject in a grammatical construction that suggests time, suggests the subject exists prior to as well as after the verb in the dependent clause.

 

Will not suffice

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, fourteen detainees testified before a military tribunal. More than a hundred pages of this testimony were leaked to the New York Times. Without the photographs, would the voices of these men ever have been heard?

These photographs are valuable because they created a space for the subjects to tell their own stories. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that because torture produces little useful military intelligence, it is not a military tactic, but instead a tactic to destroy the personhood of the victim. It reduces the person to a “state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). To relate a story is an attempt to undo that process, to return to a state of language, to begin to reconstitute subjectivity through the act of speaking. To tell a story is to organize an event and our reactions to it into a meaningful, legible narrative. It is to interpret, an act that asserts our human-ness, and declares we are not a thing, we are a subject who speaks.

When I saw Metres present his own poetry based on the testimony of the ex-detainees at Indiana University, he said, “Their ability to tell their stories is a testament to survival.” Ability is the subject of the sentence, not story, suggesting it is simply the act of telling that testifies to survival, that survival is embedded in narrative, regardless of content. If a detainee chose to tell a different story—the birth of his daughter, graduating from university, learning how to bake bread—he would still be testifying to survival.

 

But here is an artist

Michael loves to tell stories. His photographic memory and affection for detail can make listening to his stories trying.

“The wood is oak,” he’ll begin. “It’s not overly finished, so you can see the grain and the spalting, which makes a black honeycomb pattern.”

At first, I would get distracted during his stories.

“No tablecloths, just these long wooden tables, you know maybe from here to about there. And the walls are made of a similar wood. Maybe a bit lighter. So you sit at this long table. One side is a continuous bench built into the wall and on the other side—well, they aren’t stools exactly because they have a little back, maybe three inches or so.”

Over time, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the way his stories invite me to settle in, allay the endless spinning in my mind through the lists of things I have to do. Then I can see how the level of detail is not self-indulgent; rather it is his attempt to allow me to participate in the experience, as if I was really there with him.

When we tell each other stories, we arrest time, we open a pocket of stillness for the listener; we invite them into another space with us, like welcoming them into our home or leading them to our favorite painting in a museum.

When we share stories, we stand in relation to one another as listener and teller, a relationship that creates continuity between each other.  The source of this continuity is, to borrow a phrase from Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, “the way each affirms the aliveness of the other” (89). In this relationship, “each ‘welcomes’ the other: each—to return to the word’s original meaning—‘comes into accordance with [the] other’s will’” (90). The root of accordance is Latin: cord, or heart. Literally, accord means to bring heart to heart. This does not suggest passive submission to another’s will, but an active agreement to come into harmony with the other.

In other words “to come into accordance with the other’s will” is to create a relationship of mutual consent.

Scarry argues that justice rests on the “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” borrowing a definition from John Rawls (93). In other words, the practice of justice begins with a decision to bring ourselves into accordance and acknowledge our mutual aliveness. This is analogous to the relationship between teller and listener of a story, which also requires a recognition of each other’s mutual aliveness. Moreover, storytelling requires a recognition of one’s ability to speak and the other’s ability to comprehend—both human activities. Therefore it is not merely a recognition of mutual aliveness but of mutual personhood. Because it creates this relationship of symmetry and mutual consent, storytelling can be an act of restoration after violence.

With violence there is no symmetry. One is forced to submit to another’s will. How is the balance of right relations restored? In cases in which the violence is intimate, the perpetrator known, the place your own house or even your own bed, legal action becomes treacherous. For many women the choice is between the silence left by brutality or speaking into another brutality, the brutality of questions that imply our complicity or guilt. But didn’t you invite him in? Were you not his lover? Hadn’t you said yes before?

And I am left with fantasies of crowbars, broken bottles, and most of all my fist so that I could actually feel the bone’s snap, so that he would know what it is like to be this close to someone, to be held in their arms as they break into your body, reduce it to a thing. And it occurs to me this is how it happens, this is how we have run amok in the thousands of gestures—large and small—where we fail to recognize the other’s aliveness.

 

It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life

I couldn’t watch the 60 Minutes II on Abu Ghraib. Instead I read a transcript of the show without the photos. Eventually they were unavoidable, the naked and hooded men, the pyramid of curled bodies, the soldier flashing thumbs-up over a corpse.

What was avoided, however, was the fact that there were forty-two female prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In a quick news search, I learned the brutality visited upon them was indeed photographed, and that Congress has seen these photos, but they have not been released to the public.

This is as far as I can go, because I can barely bring myself to think about those women. Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.  Though I intellectually recognize my experience is in no way equivalent to these women, the sentence there were women there aches in my body, in my joints that I wrenched against his weight. I flee into books and articles, philosophy and science, even the dictionary—for any word to say aloud to remind me I am human.

 

old hunks in that particular instance

Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.

Because rape is considered to be a great shame on a family, the lack of a full account of what happened to the women in that prison allows for continued terrorism against former detainees and their families. Accusations that women were raped in Abu Ghraib have become another weapon in Iraq’s ethnic conflict. Doctored photos of rivals’ wives and daughters in the center of a circle of American soldiers are dropped off on doorsteps, circulated on grainy flyers. My government’s refusal to conduct a full investigation of prisoner abuse leaves these women in limbo, makes them a blank upon which contradictory narratives about the American invasion are inscribed. One story claims the invasion led to their liberation, and the other claims it led to their subjugation.  And I stand, helpless, on the other side of the world.

Instead, I search the blurred faces of the mob in the lynching photo, looking for particulars, something to make one of those people recognizable. I want to ask them: How could you visit such violence on your neighbors? How can you reduce those who share your quality of aliveness or personhood to objects? But I also want to ask, how can we do this? How can we visit violence—if just by looking or even by looking away—on others? More importantly, what can we do now, with our voices and our bodies, to begin restoration, even if we know it will never be complete?

 

There is now your insular city

At first it seems the two male dancers are mirrors of the women, who stand slightly in front of them. They arabesque when the women arabesque, they jetté when the women jetté. Their movements so exacting they are mesmeric. Then the women draw their bodies upward on pointe, arms lifted—high and slender—to the ceiling as the men plié deeply, legs wide. The men shift their weight to the left leg, extending the right outward. The women grasp the outstretched leg for support as they lean, lifting their own leg skyward. Just at the moment when they can’t go any farther, where any more forward tilt would cause them to fall, they release their partner’s leg and cantilever forward into his arms.

We move in relation to one another’s bodies, stepping aside slightly so the other can pass, squaring ourselves on either side of a heavy object before lifting together, leaning our weight back into the belayer’s harness as the climber ascends. In dance bodies move in relation to one another in a way that is completely non-teleological; they are not trying to get anywhere, lift an object, or climb something. The goal is the relation between bodies; the relation between bodies is not a means to an end but the end itself.

What if in the negotiations of our private relationships, in the planning of our cities, and in our political lives we thought of our relations to one another not as teleology, but as choreography?

 

Wade knee deep in tigerlilies

We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories in this relationship of welcome, of mutual consent.

My grandmother had a great glass jar of smooth grey pebbles she collected on the various beaches she visited during her life, and she would take them out and let me hold them. That is how I think of these stories we tell each other, lifting each pebble out and passing it across the table. We take the same pebbles out each time, lining them up in a row.

This is the thing my mother said that hurt me.

This is the time I felt alone.

This is how my father left.

My need to announce my assault to the world vanished as quickly as it came and just as inexplicably, so I’ve told Michael very little about the actual assault. Instead, I tried out different pebbles.

 

The house I grew up in had decorative windows in the entryway that acted like prisms, scattering rainbows all over the dark carpet where I would lie on my back reading.

 

My father loved to make fresh pasta. He would crank yards and yards of spaghetti out of a pasta maker and drape them over two brooms balanced between the chairs. When I was small I loved to crawl under the chairs and imagine I lived in a pasta house.

 

When my mother and I were in Portugal we ate fresh figs every morning. We would wake up, go to the market and sit on the stone stairs of the cathedrals and alternate a bite of fig with a bite of cheese, watching the city wake up.

 

And, still unable to conjure that blank time, he hands me what pebbles he can.

 

I remember my father had all these fruit trees. When I would visit him in Florida, I could eat peaches directly off the trees and I would have to bend over so the juice wouldn’t spill all over me.

 

When my family lived in Tennessee, my brother and I found this enormous stone in the woods behind our house and that’s where we would play. We were out there for hours, days even. Whenever I think about Tennessee all I see is that stone.

 

The first night I bought my house, my friend came here—there was no electricity or anything—and we sat on this porch and split a bottle of champagne and planted that poplar tree.

 

two and two there floated into my inmost soul

The fall crops were done. Michael and I dug up a dozen turnips and the greens were too spare to make harvest worth it. Packing up the shed at the food bank’s garden for the last time, Michael said to me, “If you ever want to tell me what happened, you can.”

But I didn’t want to tell that story—a story of pain and devastation. Instead, I talked about writing and literature and photography, speech that held the grief at bay. I never told him the full story of what happened; the traumas that originally brought us together ultimately made being together impossible. However, over those months from sweet peas to collards, Michael and I told each other hundreds of stories, reminding me that what defines us is not a series of events, or an accumulation of traumas. In fact trying to pin down “what defines us” is an impossibility. We are—if we are lucky—like dancers, always in motion and in relation to one another.

 


 

Works Cited

“Accordance.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. <http://dictionary.oed.com>

Danton, Arthur C. “The Body in Pain.” The Nation. 26 November 2006. <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061127/danto>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.

Metres, Philip. “Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1596-1610.

————-. “The Writer in the World.” Artsweek Presentation. Neal Marshall Center, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 26 February, 2009

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985

————-. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or a Poem of Force. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1956.

Elizabeth HooverElizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with conceptual or research elements. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and The Los Angeles Review. Her essay “Phantom Language” was a finalist for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.  She is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.

The List

Toothpaste, toilet paper, hamburger, ketchup, buns. Five items make a Saturday morning grocery list. My wife rehearses the items with me, face-to-face, asking me to repeat the list. It’s the only way she knows I understand her. When she asks if I understand, I always nod my head. I double check my wallet for money, stuff the list in my left pocket, and head to the grocery store. Got it. Simple. Drive directly to the store, buy the items on the list, return home. Thirty minutes max. En route to the grocery store I stop at a coffee shop to relax a bit. I bump into a friend and we banter about the everyday stuff that coffee shops elicit, our families, current events, politics, and the recent trend in the price of gas. Two hours pass. As I finish my coffee time, I remember that I need to make a grocery store run.

At the grocery store, I wander the aisles and gaze at the shelves. I travel every aisle, up and down, sometimes twice. I’m looking for something, but I don’t know exactly what. The meat and seafood section is especially appealing. Live Maine lobster and silver-scaled tilapia swim in Plexiglas cold-water tanks. Their movement fascinates me. I finally decide on one pound of king crab legs and two half-pound t-bone steaks. The demo lady at the end of the aisle near the seafood is displaying a special cranberry horseradish sauce that she promises goes well with steaks. I gobble a sample on a cracker. “Wow, that’s really good,” I say. She smiles. I can’t imagine that we don’t have this at home. I add two jars to the cart.

In the bakery, I am overwhelmed by the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. I gently lay two loaves of French bread in the child seat of the cart, up high and out of danger from being crushed. I add four éclairs just for effect. As I think about dessert, I sense the need to get some other items, but I can’t remember what they are. I am unaware of the discussion with my wife about the grocery store list. Whatever information was conveyed in the now “nonexistent” grocery discussion has vanished, so of course I am not concerned that I don’t remember it. I only know I am in a grocery store. I know how I got there, and that I need to buy food. The list in my pocket does not even register in my mind. I have no agenda, no plan, no list—just this compulsion: buy food.

Following the general notion that I should buy food, I roam the store. Pickles. I need pickles. Barbecue sauce would be good. And cake mix. I add three milk chocolate, three French vanilla, and three lemon—all on sale. I think how my wife will be so happy that I am smart enough to look for things on sale. Bright orange placards announce a temporary price reduction on cake frosting. I add six cans of various flavors then rush over to the dairy department and throw in three blocks of cream cheese because I always use cream cheese in my frosting recipe. Near the cream cheese aisle is the yogurt aisle. I don’t ever recall seeing so many interesting combinations of fruit and yogurt. Ten cups for eight dollars. A steal. I arrange them artfully next to the French bread. The bread reminds me that a nice cabernet would go well with the t-bones. Off to the wine section I go.

I spend a full half hour gawking at the artistry of the wine labels. I finally decide on an Argentinean blend, on sale and with a nice colorful label. The wine reminds me that an aged cheese would be good. I head to the cheese display. Same treatment as with the wine. I spend thirty-some minutes eyeing the cheeses. In the cart goes camembert, a wedge of Canadian Black Diamond cheddar, and a new cranberry goat cheese spread. Cheese needs crackers. I add two boxes of gourmet crackers.

I continue my shopping spree until my cart is about half full. I sense that I didn’t need all that I decided to get, but I really don’t know what, if anything, I was supposed to get. So, I add just a few more small items, jelly beans, tangerines (my wife likes them because they peel so easily), a few candy bars, and a quart of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

At the checkout counter, the cashier asks if I found everything okay. “Yep,” I say. “Gonna have surf and turf tonight.” She says how fun and that it looks like I’m planning a party. “Just the two of us,” I respond. She smiles. The tally is well over a $100. I swipe my credit card and the bagger loads the cart. Off to the parking lot I go; seven plastic bags hold dinner.

I get home about noon. My wife is making lunch. I am so excited as I bring the groceries in and plunk them on the kitchen counter. “I got you some jelly beans,” I announce with a smile.

“Oh no,” she begins. “What’s all this? What happened to the list?”

“What list?” I reply. She moans and shakes her head, then reminds me of our grocery conversation earlier that day, of the list she made, of the folded slip of paper in my pocket. I tell her that I didn’t remember any list. She asks if I checked my pockets. “Five things, that’s all you had to get.” She’s a bit upset with me.

I pull the list from my pocket. “Oops,” I say. I feel badly, but have no remorse.

 

I make lists for everything: medication, medical appointments, errands, writing, reading, free time, and family time. I make lists for cooking and cleaning, for yard work and housework. Banking and taxes are on a list. Handling money is tricky without a list. Sometimes I lose checks to deposit because they are not on a list. If something that needs to be done is not on a list, it usually does not get done at all.

Spontaneous events in my life create a greater emotional impact and tend to override my planned events. Colors of seafood, movement of fish, and the art of wine labels can evoke a stimulating diversion from the dull and inanimate world of lists. Interactions and objects that stimulate my senses usually alter my direction of thought and break my focus. I literally become “listless” when under the influence of sensory details—something of a sensory attack.

My therapists say that stroke injured the executive functioning part of my brain, so that higher ordered thinking processes, such as sequencing and prioritizing, problem solving and multi-tasking, do not operate as they should. Add deficits in attention processing with disruptions of short-term memory, and the milieu in which I try to order my thoughts becomes a world of constant distractibility and hesitation. I second-guess myself in almost everything. Was I really supposed to buy pickles? Am I really supposed to be going to a doctor appointment? I rehearse lists constantly—verbally, silently. When my wife goes over a list, sometimes I don’t understand her complicated verbal instructions. I usually just nod and say yes to avoid looking stupid. Then later, I always wonder what I said yes to.

The making of lists helps me accomplish basic everyday tasks. They help me focus and maintain intentionality in everything I do. At the top of one of my earliest lists, my first therapist wrote in bold letters, Kiss Wife. No list—no action. In the first year after my stroke, I often felt like I was living in a never-ending labyrinth of confusing choices that overwhelmed my ability to discern the important from the unimportant. A crisis of the seemingly urgent or the impact of sensory details could derail an ordered thought or detailed plan within seconds. I felt trapped in a cartoon strip where five or six frames told a story, but I could never make the connections between frames, and I could never completely understand the point or get the joke.

The entire business of list making has to do with engaging my brain to sort through, analyze, and prioritize all of my potential actions. It’s a sort of fake executive functioning, a paper brain. My executive brain functions by trickery. It relies on external prompts to organize information and make decisions. And, with enough external prodding, I am able to evaluate choices and information through the new paradigm of a stroke survivor. Trained as an emergency medicine physician, I used complex medical algorithms and treatment protocols to solve clinical problems. As an army medical officer, I shifted those protocols to war scenarios. Both of those roles demanded an ability to quickly sort through layers of complexity. Now, my protocols focus on getting though the day: shopping, appointments, reading, cooking, and scheduled routine tasks. I try to minimize complexity and distractions. Lists, my therapists remind me, are really my friends.

 

I hate lists. I hate them like I hate the kind of friends who never call unless they need help moving furniture. They also remind me of litmus paper that turns red for positive or blue for negative. My lists are litmus paper; and they always turn red for brain damage. They nag that my abilities as a doctor and a soldier have been effaced by a stroke and that I’m incapable of thinking with just the pure cognitive and imaginative power of my brain. Lists fill me with desire for things not on the list. I want my brain back—I want a fast, spontaneous, fully capable brain.

More than anything else, lists remind me that I need a list. And that reminder can piss me off. When that happens, I usually write hard and fast. I tense my shoulders and jaw. My breathing turns shallow and choppy. Sometimes I scribble unintelligible words, a cipher for the things I am unable to do on my own. If I’m really in a rebellious mood, I will crumple a list and toss it in the trash. Occasionally, I tear a list into pieces and throw it in the street—a sort of therapeutic littering.

I often relegate lists to my pocket or leave them on the kitchen counter, isolated, unattended and impotent, unable to insult my intelligence. Then I move and think independently, passionately, adrift without care or caution. And I love it and I hate it. I love it because I feel unencumbered and spontaneous. I hate it because I so easily lose my focus in the common distractions of another ordinary day. I go back and forth. I know I can’t do that forever—that I have to move forward, so I relent and make another list, and then yet another. I fill them with simple things that must be done just to move through the day. I fill them with complex things I think are important to me. And I do them hard, the simple and the complex—like a doctor at war. I keep moving forward. I persist. I survive.

On some really good days, I don’t need a list at all—and I phone my kids and I kiss my wife. They remind me that love doesn’t need a list. And in those moments, my mind crosses from the world of checkbox items to a world where ideas flow outside the lines like the crayon art of a child at play. When that happens, I rejoice in the spontaneity of my life. And I laugh—God, how I laugh.

Jon KerstetterJon Kerstetter, MD, completed three combat tours of duty in Iraq as an army combat physician and flight surgeon. He obtained his MD degree from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, MN. He also holds an MS in business from the University of Utah and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ashland University. He resides with his wife in Iowa City, IA. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Riverteeth, Emrys Journal, and The Examined Life Journal.

Forty-Two Measures of Rest

My younger sister Beth is driving home from a visit to her college town. She is flipping through songs on her iPod, listening to her friend Matt talk in the passenger seat. Christmas was a few days ago and snowflakes drift lazily through the air, too light and swift to land. The day seems simple and good.

Beth rounds the interstate’s corner. A minivan is upside-down in the ditch. Four people are standing in a circle nearby, but their heads snap tick-tock toward the van and back at her, so she knows there’s someone inside. She pulls over, calculating geometry in the hacksawed tire tracks. An ambulance hasn’t been here yet. She shoves the car door open, out into the snow bare-armed in her t-shirt, past the group of people standing—if they are standing and talking they must be mostly okay—yells that she is an EMT, runs toward the upside-down van. A woman is ragdolled under the back tire, her body tangled in metal. Her head is the wrong shape and part of her skull hangs open, wet and glistening, the snow falling in and melting inside. Beth pulls herself into the van. The engine clicks; it’s still warm from the heater, chugging through the Michigan winter. Beth puts two fingers into the woman’s neck. Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats.

Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats. Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine.

Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine. I’m in a wine bar in Howell, one of the single-street small towns that spiderweb their way across the Midwest in square-mile grids before fading away into forgotten storefronts, forgettable suburbs. Garlands twisted with Christmas lights wrap around each streetlight. I lift the glass to my mouth and sit back into the shabby, bottomed-out couch. My two friends are talking about weddings. I am visiting home from Boston where I now live, 25 years old, the age where it’s no longer surprising to talk about weddings. Brittany is already planning hers even though she and her boyfriend aren’t engaged. Sarah got married a few years ago under an awning in her parents’ backyard in a short white summer dress, reception in the local dive bar with greasy pizza and pitchers of beer and homemade cakes brought by the people who loved the couple, three months pregnant and clueless and happy. Sarah is planning the wedding she never had, the one where her parents aren’t deadbeats and she doesn’t have to be pregnant, one with white-starched tablecloths and overpriced centerpieces. Instead of talking about love we compare blue versus pink bridesmaids. Brittany is talking about tuxedo vests and I think, is this all that we have become? Will real things stop happening to us? To me?

*     *     *

I have a history of not knowing the right thing to do or the right way to be. Or maybe there is no right thing to be done.

While I was in ninth grade World History, writing a note to my friend about how cute Mike Munsell looked in his Abercrombie shirt, terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Living in Michigan, I wasn’t sure exactly what terrorists or the World Trade Center were, but I knew they must be important by the way the teachers ricocheted through the hallways like electrified pinballs.

By fifth hour band, kids with family in New York had evaporated from school. Everyone was already rehearsing their stories of where they were when it happened and it was an unspoken contest of whose was the best. I had no idea what was going on but it was big and important and I wanted so badly to be important. Alisa knew how tall the towers were and had been able to cry about it so she was already ahead. And then I remembered—how could I have forgotten?—that my aunt and her wife lived in New York.

In reality, they lived somewhere woodsy, too far away to see anything or be seriously injured, but in my mind I moved them into a high-rise downtown. Here was my chance to stop being irrelevant.

But as with most of my grandest plans, I was too afraid to actually do anything. I couldn’t cry and no one would notice me otherwise, so I elbowed one of the crash cymbals out of its tray. People turned and I put my hands to my mouth, all ready to be distraught, but completely lost my nerve. Everyone turned away, back toward the television while the towers angrily smoked. I turned to the boy next to me and interrupted his conversation.

“My aunt is in New York,” I said. His face did not register anything. I was crushed. So I said it again. “I have an aunt. In New York. Right now.”

“Is she okay? Why didn’t your mom come to get you?” I had no answers. I didn’t know anything. I became obscure again.

Mr. L, the band teacher, tried to get us to play. I thought he should probably say something important like how the music would bring us joy in this time of tragedy, but instead he jabbed his white baton at us like he hated us, just a little more than usual. I leaned my head on the big upright bass drum and let the vibrations thunder through me like I was empty. The second tower fell. The trumpets blared their hideous solo while I counted 42 measures of rest.

For the next few years I lied, trying to tell a better story, even though I can’t understand why I wanted to. I made Mr. L a sympathetic character. In this version, he doesn’t make us play. His radio won’t work, so he lets us out into the parking lot to listen to the news in our cars. Probably he sobs over our practice records in his office. In this version I follow Ryan, the junior drummer, out to his car with a group of somber-faced friends. There is not enough room for me in the back seat, so he pulls me onto his lap, and I am close enough to touch the odd half-moon dimple above his left eye. The towers fall, and we think we hear people screaming, and Ryan locks his fingers around me. In this version I am visible, wanted, important. In this version I know about tragedy.

When I get home, my mother rests her head against the humming refrigerator and cries. I start to fear bombs the way my mother fears nuclear fallout. I’m sure the next one is coming. For weeks I can’t stop myself from doodling American flags, over and over.

*     *     *

On the side of the interstate it is far too quiet up in the cavity of the minivan while this woman tries not to die, except for the slow chugging of the exhaust of passing cars, the people inside open-mouthed, saying oh my god and so glad it isn’t them. They will drive home and tell their families; they will feel as if they’ve been a part of something important. Someone else has pulled over, and a swarm of new hands are clutching at the woman trapped in the car. Beth doesn’t look up and swats them away, knows they might break her neck or worse if her back is broken (though she wonders how, really, it could be worse) until she sees the red lights swirling dizzy-round, big men in fire suits, a plastic blue backboard sliding in the snow with its reassuring straps and buckles (she thinks ridiculously of sledding, snow and  ice white-hot-cold on her face); snow drifts, gorgeous and grotesque, into the woman’s hair while the firemen crack the ribs of the minivan wide, slide the woman out. Beth is small so she sits on the backboard with the woman and starts bloody-handed CPR, a cadence she can’t stop, chest compressions. She does what needs to be done. She does not have time to think about its importance. The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over.

The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over. Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine.

Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine. We have decimated the cheese plate, which wasn’t really a cheese plate at all but clearly just crackers from a brown-plastic sleeve and cheese sliced from a few blocks by someone’s mother. It’s all so small I could die. My friends are talking about the pros and cons of buffet versus family-style wedding dinners. None of the things I have to say fit the script. I want to say, really, how many of us are going to be divorced? I want to say that I’ll probably never have enough money to want to buy a house, and is buying a house something I have to care about now? I almost blurt the word mortgage into my glass of chardonnay because that sounds right. So I mention engagement rings, and realize that, fuck me, I’m enjoying myself.

*     *     *

Five years old, at a campground called Marble Springs, I was climbing down the ladder into the swimming hole when I saw a girl floating face down in the water. Tiny waves from the other kids on the shore lapped over her blue bathing suit. I looked at her like she was a sea creature, her blonde hair an anemone crawling outward. I do not remember feeling afraid. I did not know I should be afraid. She was a curiosity. I went to my mother and said, “A girl is floating over there.” My aunt, the one I would later forget on September 11, went over and fished the girl out of the water. Here my memory stops, and I only know what I’ve been told. The girl was heavier than she should’ve been for such a tiny person, so full of water. My aunt, another trained EMT, says she was dead, but she started mouth to mouth anyway. Soon the girl choked, regurgitated water. So much water, my aunt says, gallons and gallons of it. The girl turned from gray-blue to pink again, cried, alive. If it weren’t for you, everyone says, she would probably have died, her brain drowned. But I felt that I had done nothing. I didn’t know anything about ownership of tragedy. I knew I was not a hero. I went back to playing in the sand. To me the water was still clean.

*     *     *

In my family I am surrounded by women who know what they are doing: four trained EMTs, three nurse anesthetists, one medical student. When something bad happens, they do. What if I had been a bit older when I’d seen the drowning girl at Marble Springs, without the instinct to go straight to my mother? Would I still have stepped forward? Or would I have stood back, thinking—what’s going to happen to me?

*    *     *

On the side of the road, the paramedics have finally shown up. Beth still leans on the woman’s chest, trying to pump her unwilling heart, sweating through her clothes; the sweat starting to freeze over, though she can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s blood. She isn’t thinking about the complexities of life and what is meaningful and how we manage it—she does a job. She counts, one two three four five, important numbers. The paramedics lift the back board into the ambulance while she’s still pushing on the dead woman’s chest—and of course she’s dead, how couldn’t she be, with her brain glistening like that, with pieces of her on Beth’s jeans?—but Beth’s arms move compulsively one-two-three-four-five, a bird perched on the back board, until the paramedics say no, stop, she’s gone, too bad, so near Christmas—they say time of death, stop Beth’s counting. Everyone moves so slowly now. Beth is wearing a brand-new outfit, unwrapped from bright-red paper, the fabric perfect and meaningless. Her heart hammers out its own one-two-three-four-five and she is her own earthquake, shuddering. She has to walk back to her car, drive home, have dinner, so fucking normal. Her friend Matt throws up at the sight of her and she tells him it’s okay even though it isn’t, even though he had to stand there talking to the woman’s family, telling them it would be okay when it wouldn’t.

The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat.

On the way back Beth realizes they’ve forgotten dinner so they pull into a Wendy’s. The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat. In the bathroom she tries to clean her face with scratchy paper towels. She does not want to look in the mirror. Matt orders fries and they sit at a plastic table, saying nothing. The fries are hot and salty and she does not want them to taste so good but still, they do.

When I come home, Beth sits on the couch, wrapped in blankets. She can’t get warm. When she tells me what happened, I have nothing to say. Beth had always complained that she drives by accidents too late to help. She always just missed it, and wanted so badly to do something, to be a part of it. I apologize to her like it is my fault, and I feel like somehow it could be.

The next day Beth’s body will ache like she’s absorbed too much, tender to the touch. It will be New Year’s Eve, when we are pretending to start over. The light from Times Square will flicker from the television. On my way out, Beth says, “Wear your seatbelt.” I can’t help myself from telling the story later on that night. I can’t stop telling it. It is a great story for a party. Telling it makes me feel like I might absorb some of my sister, like instead of getting drunk in the afternoon and talking about carats, I might have been doing something important. Later Beth will say she wishes she’d missed the accident. She should never have wanted to be a part of it. She throws her bloodied clothes into the washer because somehow things have to get uncomplicated and clean.

*     *     *

Two years after I have left Boston for San Francisco, two men have bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am riding an exercise bike when I find out, watching the TV with the sound off. Red banner; breaking news. CNN plays the same ten seconds of explosion footage over and over until I realize that I recognize the streets. This, now, is the bomb I have always been sure would come. People lie bleeding with shrapnel studding their bones on Boylston Street where I used to walk to the library, walk to get frozen yogurt on my lunch breaks, my umbrella whipped out of my hand and into the gutter on windy rainy days. I pedal and pedal on the exercise bike, legs whipping in circles, too fast. I can’t seem to stop. I finish my workout but I don’t know why. I tell myself I am too afraid to go find my phone. I try to fend off the thought that finishing my workout might be more important to me than a bombing.

In the locker room, I sit on a wet bench and text all my friends in Boston, my coworkers in the building near the second bombing site. Everyone is fine and I expect to feel relief or feel like I have been a part of something, but instead I feel nothing. I feel sick. I stand in the shower until my skin is red.

I walk to have someplace to go. Here in California, summer winds have blown into town early at 40 miles per hour. The wind blows so hard that my legs are knocked around, askew. I lose track of my feet. I end up in a deserted sushi restaurant. The waitress brings me hot tea and I order much more than I can eat. I’ve been consuming nothing but news for hours. I used to live in Boston, I say. I still can’t help myself. A very bad thing, she says, and turns the TV to CNN for me, turns up the volume. Marathon runners cross the finish line in slow motion. Their legs tick the seconds. One, two, then the bomb blooms orange beside them, the energy wave rippling through their bodies simultaneously. It is almost beautiful.

In the library next, I try to read. The wind howls at the windows like an angry cat. It claws in through the seams so hard that I can feel it through the walls. It feels wrong that it should be so sunny. On my phone I thumb through the news. A picture is marked as graphic; a friend warns me not to look at it. I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to look. But of course I am. Of course I look. A young, ash-covered man in a wheelchair clutches his thigh. From the knee down, his leg has been blown off. His bone is so white and his skin flutters like bright red ribbons around a maypole. His eyes are open. He is awake.

Everything ordinary is horrible: the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of me, the blonde-haired boy in the fiction section clutching at his mother’s leg and calling mom mom mom. While Boston is in lockdown for the manhunt, my friend calls to tell me she is terrified, but she is taking her dog for a walk anyway, and it feels big and important. I want to tell her she is important. An ordinary thing is good. I want to be okay with smallness but I know the big important things will continue to come and I will still be unsure how I measure up. My father calls me and says he is glad I’m not in Boston anymore. I tell him, me too. For once I do not want to be a part of it.

I want to talk to Beth. She would know what to do, how to act, where to measure the pulse, how to breathe properly. I want her to say, that girl is floating over there; I am an EMT. I want to go back to the swimming hole and save the drowning girl not by accident, but on purpose; to know the simple and right thing to do.

Kolongowski

Jill Kolongowski grew up in Michigan. She is the managing editor at YesYes Books and is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at St. Mary’s College of California. She’s also a proud member of the 3-4-5 writing community. Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Revolution House, Fugue, and elsewhere.

Just Walk Away

I grab my baby and run outside, screaming for help. No one steps outside when they think there’s trouble. It’s hotter than hell on this shit hole street in Tucson. The neighbors are sitting inside drinking beer, cursing the humidity that’s sucking away the coolness from their rusty swamp coolers. I’m standing on the road, carrying my limp baby, who I am certain is dead. A more sensible mom would call 9-1-1, not scream for help from unknown, unseemly neighbors. And then Ania breathes. And I cry. We return inside the house and I pull out my breast, the cure-all for all misery. I look at my baby and wonder what just happened? We had just finished taking our nightly bath, and then, while putting on Ania’s pjs, she started crying. The crying intensified, transforming into a hellish wailing. I picked Ania up, did the calm-down bobbing up and down step routine, while singing our song: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone ….” And just like that she was quiet. Too quiet. Blue and limp. And I ran outside, not wanting to be alone with my non-breathing baby. But we were alone, standing outside, me screaming, Ania doing whatever she was doing. I watch her nurse. She looks at me with suspicion, as if I am to blame for this non-breathing fiasco. As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt. I automatically assume all blame. In the past, I must have strived for amorality, or so it seems tonight, because I am riddled with complex guilt. In the past I have done shitty things, yet, I remained guilt-free. I don’t even know how I am so personally responsible for my baby’s passing out, but as her mother, I claim all responsibility. I must have missed some crucial detail, forgot to do that one thing that prevents your child from stopping to breathe. I fucked up somewhere down this maternal road.

As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt.

In six months of living, she has never stopped breathing. At least not that I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. We’re never apart; surely I’d know if my baby wasn’t breathing. She sleeps with me, no crib, but now I wonder if crib death could mean sleeping next to mother in a real bed also. I rock my baby back to sleep and rock myself into an obsessive worry, wondering what caused this turning blue, this cessation of breathing. We had just moved into this rental house. For months, we drove around Arizona in my truck, carrying all our belongings with us, housesitting for kind friends who were leaving for extended vacations, kind friends who knew my baby, dog, and I had nowhere to live. No need for baby monitor. No need for painting the baby’s room. We carry everything in the back of the truck. Good intentioned parent friends, friends that know how parenting is supposed to be (and friends I am now tossing onto my asshole list, hopefully on a temporary basis, the same way I’m hoping this streak of poverty is temporary), like to point out that I have been ruining my baby, and I am missing out on all the wonders of having a baby by not living in a house. It wasn’t until I became a single mother that I couldn’t find anyone who would rent to me. As an unemployed student, I could easily find a place to rent. As a mother, I endure endless questions about my bleak financial situation, and no one offers me a lease. It didn’t matter that I had the money for the first month’s rent and the security deposit in my hand. No one trusted that I’d have the money for the second month’s rent. I finally returned to the divey rental houses where I had lived as a grad student. I tried moving into a better house, a safer neighborhood, but I was so relieved to get the key to this dump, this shitty house suddenly seemed to have endless potential. It even had two bedrooms, one bedroom more than the unit I rented next door. A fenced in front and backyard for the dog. Life was good again. I was about to understand the joys of being a parent with a house.

 *     *     *

I look at my baby and know that she didn’t mind traversing across the state, sleeping here and there. I minded. I wanted a house, a mailing address, a phone number, but not Ania. We’d find swimming pools, go on bike rides, and long hikes with our dog. I’d hear Ania cooing away behind me, tugging my hair every now and then, and feel her head flop off to the side as she slept soundly. She had no worries about food or bed. I am her food and bed. She never turned blue when we were house sitters, which sounds so much more uplifting than calling us homeless. When friends saw us arrive at their homes, and then not leave, but linger on as they hinted it was time for bed, I must’ve looked a bit distressed, because they always ended up saying, “Why don’t you guys spend the night?” The dinner guests who never leave. But we’d leave. Other vagabond friends would be leaving the country, and off we’d go to occupy their home. Good friends every one of them. Good friends who knew me when I was childless, and I was like them, taking off here and there. Thirty-three years of just being me. And now I never go anywhere without picking up my baby, heading off somewhere together. Now we have a home. An address. We get WIC, which means I give the neighbor gallons of milk. She has five kids. I have one who only nurses. I look at my baby sleeping soundly and want her to always breathe. We have an entire life to live together. She must breathe. It’s as simple as that. Breathe baby, breathe. We live like real families now. We joined a baby and mom swimming class. I drop her into the water and her feet hit the bottom, then she bobs back up. She floats, doesn’t sink. I stand by the wall and she swims to me. We live like normal people. I’m a parent who cheers my daughter onward. The Parks and Rec folks let us take classes for free. They encourage me to take a class just for me, have a little me time, but I sign us up for crawling classes. “Maybe next time I’ll take a class for me,” I say. No one knows that we are the freebies. We fit in with everyone else, except Ania has no interest in crawling. She’s young for this class. She sits on the mats and laughs. “She’ll crawl one day,” all the parents say to me. “She can swim,” I boast.

*     *     *

I look at my baby and wonder if she has a fatal illness. I want to start researching all the reasons a baby stops breathing, but I don’t want to put her down, and I doubt I have any books with such answers in our house with no belongings. I don’t want to find out bad news. I imagine all the reasons a baby may stop breathing and start crying. For once it’s me crying, not Ania.

 *     *     *

The next morning I call a doctor. I’m so damn relieved we have this address because this address has given us health insurance for Ania. We get right in to see a specialist at the university hospital. They must think this non-breathing is very serious. The first doctor asks me questions, his intern stands beside him, and I wonder when I’ll answer the question that finally reveals how I fucked up. “Home birth? Why?” he grunts. I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or the question that determines just how badly I’ve fucked things up. “I liked the midwives.” I sound lame. “Hospitals are safer.” “I had a back-up plan with the local hospital.” “Back-up plan.” He rolls his eyes. The intern looks uncomfortable. I feel like a pathetic mother. “She’s a big baby, incredibly healthy, all things considered,” he mutters. I wait for the bad news. She’s big and healthy, but may be dying. There is no bad news. He tells his intern to take over, pats Ania on the tummy, shakes my hand, and leaves the room. The intern seems embarrassed for me and tries to be uplifting. He takes out his pen, Ania grabs for it. He laughs. She laughs. He continues with his playful doctor activities, then looks at me. “You have a really bright baby.” He’s trying to break the bad news gently. He then hauls out a huge medical book, the book I want to bring home with me, and he flips through pages, while asking me more questions. I start reading over his shoulder. “I’ve got it.” He’s so damn excited to have figured out the root of my daughter’s illness, I’m frightened. “She’s manipulating you.” “What? She’s only six months.” “She’s smart. She’s a breath-holder.” “What? Why?” “She’s manipulating you. I’d bet money on it. She is perfectly fine. We could run CAT scans, do tests, but I’m positive she’s a breath-holder.” “I have insurance. You can run tests.” “There is no test for breath-holders.” “Why would she decide to be a breath-holder?” “Because she can.” “What am I supposed to do?” “Ignore her.” “What if she dies?” “She won’t. Look, “ he says, shoving the book at me. “She’ll start breathing automatically.” I start scanning through the material. “She’ll do this until she’s four?” “Maybe. If you let her.” Let her? “There’s nothing I can do to make her breathe?” “Next time she does this, because trust me there will be another time, I’d bet money on it, just walk away. Make sure she’s in a safe place and walk away. She’ll be fine.” “What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing. Your daughter is a manipulator.” “Don’t say that. She’s just a baby.” I feel betrayed. My daughter deliberately wants to cause me extreme anguish. She wants to manipulate me. I should’ve read those parenting books more closely. Surely there are plenty of chapters on how not to raise your child to be a manipulator. “Lots of babies do this. I bet you she’ll stop doing this before she’s four. Be firm.” “That’s it? She’s fine? Not dying?” “She’s so smart, she’s a master of manipulating you. Be careful. This precious baby knows you more than you know yourself. She knows how to get a reaction out of you.” He starts laughing remembering my story about running out in the street. “I can’t believe you ran outside with her.” “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” “Nothing else?” He laughs again. I am asshole homebirth mother. “But why would she hold her breath until she passes out?” “Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.” As we ride the bike home, I wonder about all the babies I’ve known, and there have been many, and I can’t think of one baby who was a breath-holder. Not one.

“Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.”

I call the American Red Cross and ask when they’re having their next Infant CPR class. I am having a hard time believing my baby holds her breath until she passes out to manipulate me. I’m relieved she isn’t dying of cancer, or suffering from seizures, or any of the other possible medical disasters that could have been the cause of her passing out, yet, I’m not convinced she will always simply start breathing. I need to prepare for the inevitable. I look at my baby as I nurse her to sleep and wonder what I’m missing that she wants me to know, when she’ll next hold her breath, and why does my daughter want to manipulate me. I’m already a pushover. Manipulation sounds so evil, so cruel. I will teach her words. Millions of words. She will tell me what she wants. I’m so damn idealistic. I think about the doctor’s final words: Just walk away. Before becoming a mother, I was a public school teacher. Parents would say to me, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” At least I didn’t ask the doctor if he was a parent, a parent who could simply walk away. It will happen again. Just walk away. I rehearse my new maternal mantra. It will happen again. Just walk away. Just walk away. Just breathe, baby, breathe.

Payne candidDiane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.

Heart of the City

Cliff’s meaty fingers hunt and jab through his report on Arthur Ashe—eyes darting between computer screen and handwritten paper—while Starship’s We Built This City plays on 106.7.

“Yes, sir,” Cliff says in his gravelly voice, tapping his foot. He jabs a letter, glances at the screen, jabs another, double-checks to make sure this machine isn’t on a coffee break. The letters appear as commanded, but Cliff is skeptical. He mutters something about “a white’s man’s contraption.”

“Playing the race card while listening to Starship?” I ask.

He shoots me a quick look, then stabs two more letters like stray peas on a plate.

“Damn right,” he says. “Damn right. But don’t matter anyhow. All comes back to us. We laid the foundation for this shit.”

Who counts the money
underneath the bar?
Who rides the wrecking ball
into our guitars?

“You must be very proud, Cliff.”

He shakes his head and continues typing. Slowly, surely, letter by letter, he finishes the first sentence: Can you imagine being born down south and wanting to be a tennis player—that’s crazy!

“I like this station,” he says. “Songs that won’t embarrass you in front of your boss.” He repeats the station’s catch phrase nearly every time we meet, even on days when we don’t listen to the radio. Each time he laughs, an inside joke he has with himself. Maybe he’s thinking about his old bosses, big white foremen in orange reflector vests pointing down at the asphalt, Cliff following them with a jackhammer. Or perhaps he’s chuckling over the idea of having any boss at all, something he finds very amusing now that he’s retired.

The door creaks open and an officer pokes his well-manicured head into the room.

“Count time, gentlemen.”

I nod and smile. “Thanks.” Cliff searches for the “F” key. He takes his time.

“Save this for me, huh?” He exhales, slaps the tops of his thighs and stands up. “Okay. I’ll be seeing ya.”

He walks out of the room, the officer behind him whistling the song’s final bars.

*     *     *

The first time I asked Cliff if he wanted to take my class, he didn’t know what to make of me.

“I’m sixty-five years old, man.”

“Never too old to read, Cliff.” I was new, and sometimes I felt like I was reciting motivational phrases I’d read on posters.

He glanced down at my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“This the one with Jack Nicholson?”

“Well,” I said, smiling. “Sort of.”

He exhaled. “Either it is or it ain’t.”

“No, yeah. It is.”

He nodded and looked around the room. Up at the ceiling, followed the white cinderblocks down to the floor and scuffed his sneakers on the linoleum. He glanced at the paper snowflakes the previous teacher hung above the dry erase board and grinned.

“All right. Sign me up.”

*     *     *

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too, as if he alone walked up to an abandoned lot with a canvas bag of tools in one hand, lunchbox in the other. Sometimes in the middle of class I’ll see him look around the room and nod. Or he’ll run his hands over the cinderblocks, fingertips reading history in the bumpy lead paint.

After forty-six years as a construction worker, Cliff sees the world as his job site. A place where things need doing. Plans designed and executed. He’s methodical and precise and despises laziness. His body is permanent muscle. Calluses shaped like hands. A round protrusion on his bald head that other students call his “devil horn.”  Piss off C and he’ll sic his devil horn on ya. He looks ridiculous crammed into the wooden chair with the desk attached—all the students do, but especially Cliff—his hulking frame and thick legs engulfing the chair so it looks like he’s squatting in the center of the room, a comma-shaped slice of wood pressed to his side. He holds a book as if it were just another tool, something to swat a fly or level a shaky workbench.

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too

“I built this fuckin’ place,” he tells William, a new student.

“We know, Killa. We know,” says Carlos, Cliff’s sidekick.

“Yeah, but he don’t know.”

“Well, now he knows.”

“Shiiit,” William says. “This one job you no need to finish, brotha.”

*     *     *

I don’t ask Cliff why he’s here. I never ask any of my students about their crimes. It’s not so much off limits as it is bad taste. Like talking about the cause of death at a funeral. What difference does it make? We’re here now.

He alludes to domestic abuse, his wife that just would not shut up, and the other students nod in agreement. One day a crazy wife, next a crazy girlfriend. First the wife is cheating, then a prostitute steals Cliff’s wallet at a Motel 6.  He tells me I couldn’t handle a black woman. Too much work. You ain’t got the skills for the job.

Cliff also tells me stories about buried treasure he dug up on job sites all around Boston. Gold coins, pearls, rubies, diamonds. Secret riches everywhere. When we watch a documentary on Ancient Rome, camera panning across crumbling columns, Cliff stands up and shouts: It’s right there, man! Underneath all that shit. The narrator describes a sharp tool called a dolabra, which workers used to carve out blocks for the city’s defensive wall. A foreman once drove a dolabra into the chest of one of his workers for sleeping on the job. But Cliff doesn’t seem to hear any of this. He leans in close to the screen, still squinting for gold.

Cliff had to turn over all his treasure to the foremen. The way he describes them, his foremen were loony old prospectors with scraggly beards and short cigars. Beneath Emerson College, he tells me, while they were constructing the new freshman dormitories, they found pirate bones.

“No bullshit. You wouldn’t believe what’s buried underneath this city.”

*     *     *

The House of Correction is a ten-story building crowned in concertina wire and an American flag that, on windy days, clangs and pops like a docked sailboat. The HOC is on the edge of the South End, a rich part of town where young couples sleep in piano factories converted into luxury lofts. Construction began in the late 1980s and finished on Christmas Day, 1991. The old House of Correction was on Deer Island in the Boston Harbor—a looming Shawshank of a building that seemed to have always been there, as if it rose from the ocean like volcanic rock. Though the facility on Deer Island wasn’t built until the early 1800s, the island has been home to prisoners since the 1600s, when the Colonial government shipped thousands of Native Americans off the mainland and onto the Harbor Islands. Many remained there until their death.

So when Cliff tells me Deer Island was haunted because it was built on an Indian burial ground—that some nights the snow drifting through his barred window formed an angry white face—I start thinking about college students sleeping above pirate bones.

*     *     *

Cliff also built Pine Street Inn, the homeless shelter around the corner from the HOC, where, in a few months, he’ll stand in line for a room. At night, he’ll buy a blowjob in the alley, lean back against the stone wall, calf muscles flexing against the chipped foundation.

“Unless the wife takes me back.”

He built the methadone clinic. The Food Bank. The Prudential Building. The Copley Mall. The Gucci and French Connection stores on Newbury Street. Hynes Convention Center. The parking garage beneath the Common. The Hancock Building. The Tobin Bridge.

He was part of the Big Dig, which re-routed Interstate 93, Boston’s central artery, into a four-mile tunnel through the heart of the city. Cliff is reluctant to give details about the job, a blemish on his resume. If he could do it all over again, he never would have worked on such a costly, incompetent, crooked site. Never would have used substandard materials—shoddy concrete, cheap rebar.

“And for the record, I was in prison when the tunnel collapsed on that broad.” He wipes his hands together then holds his palms up by his sides. “That’s one thing the city can’t pin on me.”

*     *     *

When Cliff blames the White Man, somehow it’s clear he’s not talking about me. It’s more like all his problems—his wife and back aches and court cases—were hollow outlines in his mind and needed a color. Other times, when we’re listening to the radio and working on the computer, his tough facade falls, brick by brick, letter by letter, and he talks about his life in no color at all.

Two dozen years ago, his breakfast of champions was a hardboiled egg and a glass of Wild Irish Rose. Narragansett tallboys rattled in his lunchbox. As he walked to work, he sipped a flask of Jack Daniels. After lunch, his eyelids heavy, he scaled the HOC’s iron skeleton. He stood on the fifth floor beam, hardhat tucked under one arm, swaying with the breeze. The city stretched out below. He watched the traffic stream down Massachusetts Avenue until the cars and trucks vanished behind the buildings. He crammed his hardhat between his knees and put his palms on either side of The Prudential Building. Like a vise, he slowly pressed his palms together until the building disappeared.

And then he was on his back, in a giant pile of sand, blinking up at an empty sky.

*     *     *

For a few weeks after the fall, he didn’t drink. He didn’t visit prostitutes. He came home early to his wife. He tells me this one day when we’re alone, his back to the computer screen’s blinking cursor, radio off. He talks in a slow, gruff voice like a statue learning to speak. A droplet of sweat lingers on his bald head, then rolls over the lump above his temple.

“I was even cookin’ her dinner, man. Baked macaroni with ham. Steak and mashed potatoes. Pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and corn on the cob. From scratch.”

He describes his wife as a tall, lean woman, sharp features like carved mahogany. A tennis player from the projects. Cliff was hypnotized by her side-to-side movements, her little white skirt, how she waved her racket like a wand. They met when Cliff was eighteen, a year before his first construction job. She was sixteen. They made love for the first time in an abandoned lot between two vacant buildings. Cliff tucked a paint-splattered drop cloth underneath his arm and when they came to the lot’s chained link fence, he peeled back a loose section and guided her inside. A year later, they married.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had to work on her. Wear her down some. ‘Member what I told you ‘bout black women.”

*     *     *

The Friday before Christmas, we watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I always have perfect attendance on movie days; the room is full of men all shapes and sizes, ages and races in baggy tan jumpsuits. Cliff sits in the front row, legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, hands behind his head. He snaps his fingers and calls me “maestro” and asks if he could trouble me for a large popcorn. And a root beer.

“Can it, Killa,” Carlos says. “Chief’s about to bust loose.”

Cliff stares at Carlos as the music swells, then turns to watch Chief raise the marble water fountain over his head. Higher. Higher. The first uncertain step and the fountain tips forward and Chief’s huge body and the momentum of the heavy fountain and the iron screen and glass burst onto an open field and in the end it’s gravity that flings man and marble back into the world. The other patients bolt up in their beds and cheer and holler and pound clenched fists against the air.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says.

A slow drum beat guides Chief toward Canada. Carlos leans forward and squeezes Cliff’s bicep.

“Damn, yo. You been liftin’ water fountains or what?”

The class laughs as the credits roll.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says. He leans over and gives the white cinderblocks two solid smacks. “Like to see him try that here.”

“You proud’a this place, Killa?” Carlos asks, eyes narrowing. The clock ticks behind its metal cage.

Cliff leans back in his seat, points his copy of Cuckoo’s Nest at Carlos. “Damn right.” He paints a long arc in the air with his book. “All of it.”

The officer pokes his head into the silent room and shouts “Count time, gentleman!” The students quickly file out, whispering “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” Cliff stands and stretches, lingers in a wide, Papa-Bear yawn, then struts up to my desk. He glances at my folder, peeks under a few stray papers. I take out the picture of Arthur Ashe I printed to hang up with his report.

“There he is,” Cliff says, grinning.

I stand up on a chair with a thumbtack in my hand and hold the picture above the dry-erase board, where the paper snowflakes once were.

“That ain’t straight,” Cliff says.

I reach higher and adjust the paper. “How’s that?”

Cliff shakes his head. “Little to the left.”

The officer shouts Cliff’s name from the hallway.

“Good?”

“To the right.”

I turn to see him holding his thumbs and pointer fingers like a field goal post.

“Perfect, maestro.”

Daries photoAnthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN/New England Discovery Prize in Nonfiction and was recently awarded a gold medal at Foreword Magazine’s 2012 Book of the Year Awards. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Solstice, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He has taught literacy and creative writing in the Massachusetts Correctional System and is currently the Director of the Writing Program at Regis College.

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

I ask Luke to please control the monkey.

The monkey is a puppet on Luke’s hand—a floppy fabric imitation of the animal with bits of pink silk for the insides of the ears—and he is ambushing the other children. Luke sneaks up behind a girl who is coloring and grabs her face with the monkey. She screams.

Luke is five and quick to hit; the impact of his sweaty palm always surprises me even though I should expect it. He is small enough, though, that if he gets too out of control I can rein him in, pick him up, bring his face level with mine. I try to reason with him, hold his gaze, but his blue eyes roll backwards into his head; he flails and slaps, arching his back and then collapsing, trying to free himself from my grasp by whip-lashing his body. Eventually, he exhausts himself and goes limp. The other kids don’t like it when you hit them. It’s not nice … ok? Ok. And then he starts to screech. Sometimes he spits.

Even if he is nodding in agreement, his chin bobbing furiously—yes I am going to stop—as soon as I set him down, he sprints to the table and overturns a Monopoly board. As the metal tokens fly through the air, he laughs. The sound of his laughter is pure.

After school, the kids are wired and my job is crisis control. In addition to Luke, there are sometimes twenty-five students, ranging in age from four to twelve, and it’s not hard to lose control. I dole out Cheez-Its for snacks, notice the small group of children huddled in the back of the classroom and realize someone has stolen a package of Oreos. I go outside to coach a toddler off the highest part of the jungle gym, then come back inside to find four girls covered in thick Tempera paint. They know I am outnumbered. And I am a sucker for imaginative excuses. We needed the paint because we wanted to be invisible, because we are doing this play about invisible underwater mermaids, so we needed to be blue, the girls insist.

*     *     *

The monkey is getting out of hand. The girl, who had been coloring a fairy princess dog, is now sobbing, pleading with me to make him stop.

I decide on a new approach. Luke, I say, If the monkey does not behave, I am going to call the cops.

Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door.

Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door. Luke looks at the monkey and then back at me. His eyes widen. He runs toward me shaking the puppet the way a priest shakes a crucifix to ward off a demon. One curled hand and one monkey fist alternately pound on my thighs. I dial the invisible phone in my hand. Hello. Police? I need help. I need you to arrest the monkey.

I run over to the box of puppets and find a suitable law enforcement representative. Doing my best siren, I march over to Luke with my makeshift cop and apprehend the monkey puppet, removing it from his small hand.

Luke begins to wail. Salted water coats his fat cheeks. He is not crying in the way that he usually cries when I take a toy away or put him in time out. The crying is desperate, vulnerable, the wail of a bereft mother. He is saying, He’s dead, he’s dead. The monkey is dead. You killed him.

*     *     *

Luke is always one of the last kids to be picked up. Every afternoon, with thirty minutes of aftercare left, I sit down on the floor cross-legged and read a story, hoping the kids will calm down. While it’s not immediate, the stories send a calm throughout the room. Eventually even the die-hard Lego kids wander over and give into gravity, flopping on the floor, the exhaustion of the day finally setting in. Even some of the fifth graders drag chairs near, pretending not to listen.

Luke is the most adamant instigator of story time. He tugs on my shorts every day, always toting the same book, Tyrone the Horrible. Read this. When I frown, he asks, Miss Josie will you please read this. I sit down on the carpet and Luke climbs into my lap. He squeezes the skin on my legs. He curls up against me, rests his blonde head against my chest, and digs his clammy fingers into my arms. Luke just can’t get close enough.

The book is about a dinosaur named Boland who is terrorized by Tyrone, the world’s first bully. Tyrone has sharp white triangles for teeth and yellow eyes, and his awful smile reminds me of the expression Luke wears right before he upends a chessboard or empties a bucket of water on another kid. The story doesn’t follow the usual ‟Do the Right Thing and Everything Will Be OK” formula found in children’s books. When Boland stands up to Tyrone, Tyrone beats the shit out of him.

One of the other little boys, Ritchie, always says, That’s a baby story. I would have beat up Tyrone like a ninja. He loves to karate-kick the air. HIIIIIII-YA. Ritchie’s dad is a jazz musician, making Ritchie way too cool to be only seven. He can do the moonwalk and always wants to know why Luke acts so crazy. Ritchie’s eyes bug out when Luke writhes on the ground. Man what is wrong with Luke? He’s not right.

*     *     *

Kids yell at you. They say horrible things, like I HATE YOU AND I HOPE YOU DIE. But they’re also fast forgivers. Luke is howling, pointing at the monkey, and I am afraid this will not pass quickly. You killed him, he keeps saying, his chin rolling back and forth on his chest. I know he is not lying. I killed the monkey. I tried to arrest the monkey and instead I killed it. I panic.

Luke it’s ok. Gently, I make the monkey’s arm wave. See? The monkey’s not dead.

YES. HE. IS. Violently, Luke slams the monkey on the ground.

Inspiration. Luke it’s okay because I know monkey CPR. I happen to be a very skilled veterinarian.

Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant.

I gingerly scoop up the puppet and set him on the table. Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant. Cover the mouth and nose with your own mouth. Use two or three fingers in the center of the chest to perform gentle chest compressions. In lifeguard training I had been terrified by the thought of pressing into the tiny fragile chest; I was sure their ribcage would be crushed even if I only used my index and middle finger. Press harder, the instructor would urge me. You need to jumpstart the heart. Keep it beating with your force.

Behind me, Luke deals a flurry of slaps to my waist. HE’S DEAD. HE’S NOT MOVING. THERE IS BLOOD ALL OVER HIS FACE. I stop.

Luke goes limp and slumps against my leg, his cheeks hot and flushed. He is mumbling, It’s dead it’s dead it doesn’t matter. One of the little girls, a frequent victim of Luke’s, looks up, purple crayon in hand and points. Is he really dead? My stomach drops. I remember precisely the moment when I knew death in the way that you cannot un-know it. My sister called me up and I was twenty-two and abroad and she said, your best friend died. And I said, what, because I didn’t believe her, and she said, he drowned. And I thought, fuck rivers, and fuck you Jay because you weren’t wearing a lifejacket. You fucking asshole. I clung to facts: in water that cold—it was a glacially fed stream—and in water that cold he would have been dead in minutes. The current was so fast. His boss said he just slipped and then disappeared, was swept away, vanished. They found him miles downstream, and all I could think about was the body, blue and grey, waterlogged, swollen fingers and face.

The monkey’s bloody face. A silence settles at the coloring table, the soft drag of crayons coming to a halt. The girls are thinking about the dead monkey. They are wondering about the things they see through their moms’ fingers on the TV screen. They are wondering if that cat in the road was really sleeping. They are wondering about the red that’s leaking from the man’s ears on the television after the boom. Or maybe they have blocked it out. Maybe death is still a concept they do not understand. They don’t believe, as Luke does, that the monkey has been stabbed over and over in the face. They don’t see the blood.

Vodou. I think. Or magic. I will resurrect the monkey. I want to bring it back to life, but to do so would be to sugarcoat a concept that for whatever reason, Luke already understands: living things die, and they don’t come back, except in our memories. Kids like coloring books because there are clear boundaries: in the lines and out. The facts of Jay’s death bleed like watercolors on notebook paper into my imagined recollection of the event; at times, it is too blurry to make out which parts are which.

My sister is an archaeologist and she tells me, when you find a hard white bit of something in the sand, and you need to know if it is bone or rock, you put it in your mouth. If it’s bone, it sticks to your tongue. How do you know if something was real, alive? It sticks.

I don’t want Luke to know yet that you can’t choose which parts stick. I don’t want Luke to know yet about the permanence, about the fact that you will remember the worst things too, not just the best days when you would ride your bikes together across the Stone Arch Bridge, across the frozen Mississippi, your hot fast breath twin puffs of white in the night sky, when you would bike so fast you didn’t dare turn your handle bars for fear of skidding out on the black ice, racing one another like deities tearing through the city. You will remember all the blood pouring out, too, the things you didn’t even see, existing only in your imagination. The fat fingers, puckered and pruney hands like those of a kid who stayed too long in the bathtub.

But Luke already knows. There is no miracle.

I pick him up and we go sit in a chair in the corner. We leave the monkey on the table, crumpled, lifeless. We read stories. For him, or for me, I am not sure.

Josie Scanlan

Josie Ann Scanlan was born in Minnesota and owns a Bob Dylan necktie. The first story she ever wrote featured an earthworm protagonist who was afraid of everything, especially roller coasters. She’s a sucker for public radio and is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction at the University of New Orleans.

 

“Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation” is a Best of the Net 2013 finalist, selected by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Congratulations to Josie Ann Scanlan!

Writing My Way Out of the Past

When I was a child, I signed my granddaddy’s Social Security checks for him. He never learned to read or write, and he never attended any type of school. As the grandson of slaves from Georgia and South Carolina, all my granddaddy knew of the world was the tiny corner of northeast Georgia where we lived.

Granddaddy was a man of habit. Whenever I visited his house, he would always sit in the same corner of his living room in the exact same chair. Every day, even in summer when everyone else was loafing off toward the swimming holes, he wore denim bib overalls with a long-sleeved flannel shirt underneath them and a pair of tan-colored boots. My granddaddy had a head of completely white hair (just as my mother does today and just as I imagine I will also have some day). His brown eyes had a grayish film to them, and in certain lighting they had a glowing luminosity. Granddaddy had terrible eyesight and wore glasses.

“Lee, Monic,” he would say to my momma and me, “I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other one.” It was his idea of a joke, but no one ever laughed.

Momma used to drive Granddaddy and me to the Community Bank and Trust in Commerce, Georgia. The bank was inside a grocery store, the least expensive market in town. The grocery shared a shopping plaza with a Family Dollar and a rickety furniture store. At the bank’s counter, Granddaddy would write a gnarled letter ‘X’ next to the endorsement line, and I would write ‘Edgar Johnson’ for him in my big, round handwriting. On those days, Granddaddy would stand very straight, but his eyes would always be cast down, or else he would look at some spot behind the teller’s head. I never understood why he did that until I grew older.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write. Sometimes, even now, whenever I’m reading or writing something interesting, I think about Granddaddy. Books are such a big part of my life that I don’t know what I would do without them. I studied English in college. I had big dreams of becoming a writer, but after graduation I focused on getting a practical job.  Because I was a Social Work minor, I was able to get a position as a case manager in state government, processing Medicaid and Food Stamp cases.

Most of the customers in my caseload had a lot of the same problems—low wages, absent parents, children to feed. Most of the cases run together as one in my mind, but there is one woman I will always remember: Nilda Sanchez. She reminded me of my granddaddy.

Nilda was a young Hispanic woman. She did not speak English well enough for me to interview her alone, and so we spoke through an interpreter. She came into the office with two dark-haired little girls. One was an infant child asleep in a car seat with a pink blanket draped over her. The older girl wore her hair in two ponytails, and her cheeks were so red that they seemed to have been colored in by a heavy-handed child.

I began to feel cramped with the five of us in my tiny office, and so I scooted my chair closer to the wall to allow more space between my body and Abraham, the interpreter. As Abraham introduced me to her, I noticed that Nilda kept looking around my office. There was a small vase of artificial flowers on the desk. She placed a fingertip on a petal, rubbed it as though it was something special.

She spoke softly in Spanish. “You are young for this job, right?” Abraham translated.

“About your age,” I replied. It was strange that she wanted to make small talk. Most customers just wanted their stamps.

Nilda had a bright pink mouth that was so chafed it looked as if the skin would crack open if she smiled any wider. She looked at everything—a radio on the shelf, a flower print on the wall, my imitation silk blouse—with full attention. Please, God, don’t let her be impressed by a job like this. I wanted to tell her that I was just like her—poor and living in a tiny apartment I could barely afford. But from the way Nilda kept looking at my clothes and the pictures on my desk, she probably would not have believed me.

I gave Nilda the standard Food Stamp review forms and then slid a pen across the table to her. Silently, she slid the pen and the forms back to me. I looked up at her, but she averted her eyes. Nilda began to speak again, and Abraham leaned forward and cocked his head to the side as though he was having trouble hearing her. I recognized the Spanish words formas and ayuda. Finally, Abraham turned and looked at me as he said, “I don’t know how to fill out the forms. Can you help me?”

“It’s okay,” I said. “They’re in Spanish.” I pointed to the first line, which indicated NOMBRE in big, bold letters.

Nilda dropped her eyes back to the carpet. “No. I didn’t go to school,” Abraham translated. “I don’t read Spanish at all. Can you help me?”

I cut my eyes from Abraham to Nilda. They both looked expectantly at me.

I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation.

I wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should I fill out the forms for her, or would she need an authorized representative? I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation. Looking at her across the desk from me was like being transported back to childhood. For a moment, I felt as if I were still standing beside my granddaddy writing his name for him at the bank’s counter.

I excused myself and went down the hall to my co-worker’s office.

“Lisa?” I said as I stuck my head in the door.

She sighed and banged her phone so loudly against the desk that I jumped. I looked at it, expecting to see a broken receiver. I stood there for an awkward moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, I launched into my explanation of Nilda’s situation. She stopped me mid-sentence and said, “We have a lobby full of people out there. Just give her the damned Food Stamps.”

And so I asked Nilda the questions aloud, and she answered through the interpreter. As I was writing, I remembered how disgusted a co-worker had been several weeks ago when she talked about undocumented immigrants stealing jobs from Americans, and it made me even more upset. How could a girl like this—a girl who couldn’t even speak, read or write English—steal a job from someone, especially when she was illiterate in her own language as well?

I stumbled through the interview, and after the last question I handed the clipboard to her.

“Are you able to sign?” I asked, almost certain of what her answer would be. Nilda seemed to know what I meant even before Abraham gave her my words. She shook her head and then wordlessly handed the pen and clipboard to her daughter. The child could have been no more than seven or eight years old. She carefully printed her mother’s name in big, round letters.

The child met my eyes for a moment as she handed the paperwork back to me. I wanted to tell her that girls like her were the ones who would grow up to tell our stories. I wanted to tell her to keep her head up, but I didn’t.

*     *     *

Last year, I wrote a fiction story about a 12-year-old boy who teaches his grandfather to read. It was the tale of a man who was somehow made better by writing elementary words from a primer. It was about a boy who took pride in knowing that his grandfather would die literate. My own granddaddy died when I was twelve, an age when I was still too young to understand the importance of literacy. Today, I realize I wrote that story to make myself feel better about never teaching my granddaddy to read. I thought a fictional story could help me forget the truth or somehow put it behind me. It didn’t. Today, I know that the truths about my family will never be told in feel-good stories. Our history is a sad one, and I cannot invent another.

As a child, reading and writing were nothing more than leisure activities, things to occupy my mind and entertain me. Reading was the thing that allowed me to crawl into the juvenile fiction I devoured every day and night. It took me years to learn that illiteracy was the most immediate cause of my granddaddy’s poverty. It would take still longer for me to learn that a limited education was the thing that kept him sharecropping someone else’s land for so many years. When I finally learned all of these things, it seemed that my entire childhood could be divided between a period of not knowing them and an era of accepting harsh realities about my family. Not knowing made me ignorant, but knowing made me sad. To me, sad was better.

Monic DuctanMonic Ductan has an undergrad degree in English from Georgia State University, and is currently study poetry in the MFA program at Georgia College. Her work has recently appeared in Bartleby Snopes, DOGZPLOT, Subtle Fiction, Crab Creek Review and numerous other journals. She’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes this year, and is currently a fiction finalist in the Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Contest.

 

Baby Talk

While they are standing online waiting to jump into the Double Dutch ropes, I overhear twelve year old Margie Golden tell Sarah Lundy about abortion. “What’s abortion?” I ask.

“Never mind,” Margie says, tossing her fat braids that always hit her in her fat face when she tries to make her fat body jump.

“What’s abortion,” I ask again.

“Turn,” she says. I wind the rope tight around my hand.

“Tell me,” I say.

“Okay,” she says stomping her foot and spitting through her rabbit teeth. “It’s when mothers kill their babies.”

“That’s a crime,” I say. “They’d go to Riker’s for that where your old man is doin’ time.” I love saying doin’ time like Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.

“They kill them before they’re born, Stupid, like your old lady did to your three sisters. For a nine year old, you don’t know much.” When Margie jumps into the ropes, I jerk them so she trips.

I didn’t tell Margie that I already knew about my three sisters especially the one who didn’t even have a name. One night when we were telling scary stories as we roasted Mickeys over a fire in a garbage can in front of 615, Ronald Schneider from 2D told me about the babies. “I remember when your mother had a big belly a coupla times but I never seen a baby. My mother told me she brought one home but I ain’t seen that baby neither. That’s pretty scary,” he said. He never mentioned abortion. He’s as old as Margie but he’s not as smart as her especially about girl things. Margie’s a liar. My mother is too gentle to be a killer.

*     *     *

At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “

When my Aunt Tess was with child, I always said my aunt is with child to my friends. I thought it made her seem like Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary was with child. It sounds so beautiful compared to the word pregnant with its hard g and n which sounds like a grunt. Aunt Tess gave birth to twin sons, Francie and Peter, two ginger-haired, roly poly boys. Francie was born with kidney problems. “Nefridis,” my mother said. My mother went to visit him in St. Francis Hospital everyday and she took care of Peter for Aunt Tess when she stayed over at the hospital. At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “That’s so he’ll know where he sprang from,” she’d say. Baby killers don’t sing to babies especially ones that aren’t their own.

*     *     *

When Mama went upstairs to see Francie in the hospital with my Pooh Bear under her arm, I’d wander up and down the marble hallways of St. Francis because kids weren’t allowed to visit patients. Outside, there was a garden with a statue of Francis of Assisi in brown robes and sandals with a bird flying out of his hand. St. Francis loved flowers, trees and animals. He cared for lepers dying in the streets and gave all his riches to the poor. I figured a saint as wonderful as he would keep an eagle eye on a baby named for him.

*     *     *

The day after Francie dies, I have to return A Tall White Sail and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to the library because they are overdue. I already owe eight cents on them; eight cents buys four squirrel nuts and four red dollars at Shapiro’s. I head straight for the huge encyclopedia sitting on a pedestal in the adult section of the library. First, I grab the display copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea for Mama. In class recently, Sister Mercedes spoke about it and told us the sad story of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping. She said each chapter was a meditation on various sea shells; each was filled with beautiful thoughts. I think the book might help Mama and having it is a good excuse for me being in the adult section when the librarian sees me. We call her Bela because she looks like a female version of Lugosi’s Dracula and because she acts as though every volume in the library is her personal property. We kids joke that soon we’ll have to give blood to take out a book.

I have no trouble finding the word abortion: Abortion is medically defined as the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo before it is viable. As quickly as I can, I thumb through the thin pages and look up uterus, fetus, embryo, viable. Viable: able to survive outside the womb. But what the encyclopedia doesn’t tell me is how women abortion their babies. As I’m searching for illustrations, I hear Bela stomping across the oak floors in her oxfords, “Go to the children’s section, young lady,” she says, pointing her long, bony finger at me. I slam the encyclopedia shut.

*     *     *

In the sports section, Bobbie Mallon is checking out the baseball books. “Hey, good lookin,’” he says. “I’m lookin’ for a bio of Babe Ruth.” He says bio like he’s so cool. In class when he closes the windows with the six foot window pole, he’s always eyeing me like I’m really impressed with his puny muscles when he hoists the pole up like it’s a spear. His mother should have abortioned him. She has ten kids. When the apartment next to theirs became vacant, the Mallons rented it.

“Hey, Bobbie, I say, are you in 2B or 2C this week? Which bell do I ring?” Mama wonders how they can afford two forty dollar rents. Another funny thing about The Mallons is that Mrs. Mallon is 5’ 8” and Mr. Mallon is 5’3”. We call them Mutt and Jeff.

*     *     *

I never thought you needed money to have babies. The thing is I know my father was out of work during the thirties when my sisters were born. “I sold apples, rags in the street,” he once told me. “We just arrived in the country and the economy collapsed. Immigrants were the last to get jobs.” Maybe my folks had no money for clothes or food for the babies. But Mama didn’t need money to feed her babies. I remember her nursing my brother after he was born.

In National Geographic you see photographs of women holding skinny babies with swollen bellies in their arms. The babies’ noses run and flies buzz around their heads. I wonder if it might be okay for those mothers to kill their babies rather than have them suffer for months and months when you know they’re going to die anyway like Francie.

*     *     *

Tonight after supper my gang is having a Double Dutch tournament in the schoolyard. We’re bringing bags of chips and lemonade for the jumpers. We had to invite some girls we hate because we need extra ropes. Even though we never invite the boys because their arms and legs get all tangled up in the ropes, they show up anyway just to annoy us. Actually our ropes are clotheslines our mothers no longer use. Mama sends me to Levy’s Hardware to replace her worn lines. “I don’t want a line filled with scrubbed laundry to break and fall into the sooty backyard,” she says. My father sends me to Levy’s to buy screws and nails or to borrow a Philip’s head screw driver. My parents are always sending me someplace; they have to nap, they say.

I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

Mr. Levy’s left pinky is missing and his nails are crusted with grease. Sawdust covers the creaky wood floor in his store and a million cardboard boxes piled on top of one another line the shelves. He slides a wooden ladder along a bar to reach the high shelves. Sometimes he lets me climb up and get items down for him. Even if it’s two inch nails or one inch screws, he knows exactly where they are. I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

*     *     *

I think I might become a nun. It’s not that I like getting up at five am but nuns wear those white linen habits so they don’t have to fuss over clothes or their hair or killing babies or if they have a big enough passage for a baby to slide through. In my bedroom last night I bent over to see if I could see down there. I couldn’t so I stood on my head and let my feet fall forward down to the floor like I was a triangle. I still couldn’t see. I stuck my fingers inside. How could a baby slip through such a small space? I wondered. I weighed almost nine pounds when I was born. That’s like two bags of sugar. And how could a mother abortion a baby inside her without hurting herself?

When all the kids were running through the spray of the fire hydrant last night at dusk, I spoke to Dolores Franken from 3C on the stoop. Everybody says she had a baby when she was fifteen. I’ve never seen the baby so I think it’s a lie people make up because she wears tight pencil skirts and angora sweaters like Rita Hayworth. And because she’s German descent. Everyone bad mouths Germans since the war. People are so dumb because Dolores’ brother Richard died in the war fighting on our side. Besides I like Dolores; she’s pretty and she tells me stories about how during the war German soldiers threw Jewish babies up in the air and shot them like clay pigeons. She tells me how sugar and meat were rationed all over the U.S. and how everyone poured out onto our streets on the day the war ended and hugged and kissed each other.

“How does a mother abortion her baby,” I ask as I swing my leg over the iron railing on the stoop and sit on it. Dolores starts filing her Fire Engine Red fingernails fast and shakes her head.

With my hands on my hips, I say, “Tell me, Dolores.”

“They go to secret doctors.”

“What does the doctor do?”

“He pulls out the baby and crushes its skull.”

“Oh my God,” I say. My head begins to spin. I cover my mouth, jump off the railing and run to the gutter. I think I might throw up my guts.

*     *     *

Sometimes when I’m eating dinner and my father insists I sit until I finish my spinach which he should know by now is never, ever going to happen,  I imagine my three sisters all chubby and rosy crawling around under the table tickling my toes and the bottom of my feet. They giggle and mumble and sing songs like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall and Mary Had a Little Lamb. I can’t help smiling.

“Do you see something funny in all this?” my father asks as he turns the pages of The Daily News, a paper that, by the way, has great photos of killings. At night when I pretend my sisters are in bed with me, they get all twisted in the sheets. They’re so smart they even know how to tickle backs or trace words on my back with their fingers and I have to guess the word. Last night each one traced her name on my back: Patricia, Margaret and Baby. I told you they were smart. When I have sunburn they peel the dead skin from my shoulders.

Sometimes when I’m bored I see them swinging on our clothesline between my father’s overalls and my brother’s Yankee tee shirt. They flip backwards and forwards on the line like acrobats. I want to yell, “Mama, come and see how much fun they are, but something inside me tells me not to.”

When I see Mama staring at the apple green wall in the kitchen and not drinking her tea, I get angry because I know she’s sad over those babies. When I go to bed and they come visit me, I kick them out of the bed or I take a pillow and press it over their faces especially over the face of Baby who never got a real name. I want to see what abortion feels like.

Liz DolanLiz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, which is seeking a publisher, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A six-time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won The Nassau Prize for prose. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. Her nine grandkids, who live one block away from her, pepper her life.